A 2,000-year-old computer and the century-long search to discover its secrets
Even though he died in 1996, Carl Sagan scored something of a hit song a few months ago. Thanks to John Boswell’s Symphony of Science project, Sagan performed an auto-tuned, remixed and trippy song created from clips of the famed astronomer’s groundbreaking 1980 TV series, Cosmos, which was based on his bestselling book of the same name. At last count, the video has been watched well over three million times.
“A Glorious Dawn” captures Sagan’s sense of wonder and amazement at the universe. It also features a sort of mid-song rap by Stephen Hawking, which really is as awesome as that sounds. Speaking from the perspective of one who was 12 nerdy-years-old at the time, it’s safe to say that the 1980 PBS show instilled similar feelings about the universe in much of its audience.
At the time, it was the turtlenecked and corduroy-covered grooviness of it all, conveyed wonderfully in Boswell’s chill-out song. Returning to Cosmos 30 years later (and older), one aspect of Sagan’s book that stands out is its urgency. This is passionate, vital work that seems intent on relaying how our existence depends, and has always depended, on looking around us, and especially up at the sky, and thinking about what we see. “The ability to read the calendar in the skies was literally a matter of life and death,” Sagan writes.
The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse; the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world: these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death.
Sagan’s words come to mind when reading Jo Marchant’s intriguing new book, Decoding the Heavens, which tells the story of one of the strangest and most impossible archaeological artifacts. Even after reading descriptions of this device in minute detail, it’s hard to believe the object known as the “Anikythera mechanism” exists. It seems like an elaborate hoax.
“[It] is one of the most stunning artifacts we have from antiquity and, according to everything we know about the technology of the time, it shouldn’t exist,” Marchant writes.
“A Glorious Dawn”
A mysterious box is dredged up from the bottom of the sea in 1900. For the next 100 years, everyone who glimpses into its workings becomes (in some cases unhealthily) obsessed with it. It contains gears and intricate, mysterious mechanics, which would be fascinating enough, except that this artifact is also more than 2,000 years old.
“It looks just like the inside of an alarm clock,” Marchant writes. “Nothing close to its sophistication appears again for well over a millennium, with the development of elaborate astronomical clocks in Renaissance Europe.”
That element of disbelief also extends beyond the object. Even the way it was discovered sounds made up. It seems like a fabrication of Charles Fort or Robert Ripley. It wouldn’t be out of place on Lost.
In 1900, a ship is thrown off course by a terrible storm. Captain Kontos and “his hardy crew of sponge divers” take refuge near the Greek island of Anitkythera, and one of his divers reports seeing bodies at the bottom of the sea, which turn out to be marvellously preserved statues. Later, the ancient wreckage they find becomes the subject of “the first ever attempt to salvage artifacts from a sunken ship”. Marchant writes:
Although 2,000 years under the sea have left [the Antikythera mechanism] dull and battered, the ideas and expertise it embodies have turned upside down our understanding of who the ancient Greeks were and what they were capable of, igniting a mystery that has taken more than a century to decode.
Combining ancient and modern history, astronomy and engineering, high adventures and bitter personal feuds, Marchant’s compelling and incredibly detailed account of the mysterious mechanism imparts a tremendous amount of information and drama, while maintaining an almost cliffhanger-esque sense of tension.
Of course, there’s at least one big question that hangs over the entire book: What the heck is this device?
The Antikythera mechanism comes “from a period when astronomers were making their first attempts to describe the universe mathematically,” Marchant writes. “The mechanism displayed the state of the skies at any chosen moment in time.”
Of course, there’s much more to it than that. Another mystery surrounds its uniqueness. If this device was so wondrous, and its mechanics so far ahead of their time, why haven’t people found more of them, or more devices from the same era with similar engineering? As Marchant writes:
This was not the work of a novice craftsman trying out his skills with clockwork for the first time. It would have taken practice, and once someone had the idea of using gearwheels to simulate the heavens, the design would probably have taken generations to perfect.
Without giving away all of its secrets here, Marchant successfully explores this and many other mysteries. At times, the details of how particular gears and cogs fit together can be a little overwhelming, but more often than not, she provides a basic and solid understanding of how the object appears to work, and more importantly, why. Yet there’s still more to this strange tale.
Alongside the mysteries, many personal dramas feature prominently in Marchant’s story, and often they are just as interesting if not more so than the mechanism itself. “Since 1901 a number of men have devoted their lives to solving the mechanism ... each unable to turn away from the mystery once it had found them,” she writes.
We learn about people like the driven Derek de Solla Price, the embattled, passionate, and dedicated work of Michael Wright, Roger Hadland’s Fitzcarraldo-like journey (involving giant x-ray machines, no less), and the race-to-the-finish discoveries of Tony Freeth and his colleagues.
About Freeth, Marchant includes this gossipy detail near the end of her tale: “Once I started writing this book, they felt unable to speak to me any further about their work or to be involved in any way.” It hints at even further drama and mystery. Perhaps all will be revealed in a sequel.
As with Carl Sagan’s work, one of the most enthralling aspects of this book is its sense of wonder with its strange subject. “Setting eyes on the fragments is an intoxicating experience, precisely because the secrets they hold are so familiar,” Marchant writes. “You can see instantly that there, in those flaky green fragments, are the seeds of our entire modern world.”
In an interview, Marchant describes the story of the Antikythera mechanism as “love at first sight” (“Four Way Interview”, Popular Science.co.uk, February 2008). She goes on:
The story had everything, from the treacherous adventures of the sponge divers who discovered the wreck on which the mechanism was found, to the ancient Greek astronomers and philosophers and their search to understand the heavens, to the feuds and obsessions of the scientists who have devoted their lives to decoding the 2000-year-old fragments.
That spirit and fascination fully informs her book. Carl Sagan once wrote, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” The ancient and strange Antikythera mechanism is something incredible, and it recalls another section of Cosmos: “Why did people all over the world make such an effort to learn astronomy? Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”