Decoding the Heavens
recounts the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, arguably the most remarkable archaeological find in human history. A mechanical computer dating from the second century BCE, it was recovered from an ancient Mediterranean shipwreck by Greek sponge divers in 1900 (after nearly 2,000 years of submersion). Its function, however, would elude academics, researchers, computer scientists, and archaeologists for still another century.
Whoever turned the handle on the side of its wooden case became master of the cosmos, winding forwards or backwards to see everything about the sky at any chosen moment. Pointers on the front showed the changing positions of the sun, moon and planets in the zodiac, the date, as well as the phase of the moon, while spiral dials on the back showed the month and year according to a combined lunar-solar calendar, and the timing of eclipses. Inscribed text around the front dial revealed which star constellations were rising and setting at each moment, while the writing on the back gave details of the characteristics and location of the predicted eclipses. The mechanism's owner could zoom in on any nearby day- today, tomorrow, last tuesday- or he could travel far across distant centuries.
An intricate, sophisticated device constructed from dozens of gears, its mechanical complexity is baffling, as similar technology was not thought to have originated until some millennium and a half later.
It's hard to overestimate the uniqueness of the find. Before the Antikythera mechanism, not one single gearwheel had ever been found from antiquity, nor indeed any example of an accurate pointer or scale. Apart from the Antikythera mechanism, they still haven't.
Despite having unlocked the Antikythera's inner workings, scholars disagree on its origins, designer, and ultimate purpose. Many theories point to Hipparchus, ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician, as the device's inventor, yet some evidence points instead to Archimedes, and some to Posidonius, a Stoic philosopher. The most recent research seems to indicate that the device's astronomical and technical features may have been based upon Babylonian scientific advances. Although research remains ongoing, the Antikythera's purpose may never be fully discerned. Speculation about its application ranges from its possible use in developing horoscopes to a "philosophical or religious demonstration of the workings of the heavens." Some even surmise that this ingenious mechanism may not be the only one of its kind.
Science journalist Jo Marchant's engrossing narrative is obviously well-researched. As her book chronicles the technological advances employed in the ever-evolving hunt for answers, we are introduced to an array of frustrated (and betrayed) researchers each racing to be the first to unravel the device's mysteries and collect accolades for their success. For whatever Decoding the Heavens
may lack in style or flourish, it makes up for with intrigue and wonder. That the Antikythera mechanism was ever chanced upon and pulled from the sea is itself quite an unlikely feat. That it was ever conceived of and constructed in the first place seems nearly an impossible one.
"Its discovery... was as spectacular as if the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb had revealed the decayed but recognisable parts of an internal combustion engine." -Derek de Solla Price (scientist and early Antikythera researcher) Recommended By Jeremy G., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
In Decoding the Heavens, Jo Marchant tells for the first time the full story of the hundred-year quest to decipher the ancient Greek computer known as the Antikythera Mechanism. Along the way she unearths a diverse cast of remarkable characters and explores the deep roots of modern technology in ancient Greece and the medieval European and Islamic worlds. At its heart, this is an epic adventure and mystery, a book that challenges our assumptions about technology through the ages.
“Spirit and fascination fully informs [Marchant’s] book”
Tucson Citizen, 4/30/10
“[A] highly readable book…An adventure that blends ample portions of fate, historic intrigue, and modern scientific innovation.”
About the Author
Jo Marchant is a science journalist who has worked as a staff reporter and editor for Nature and New Scientist, where she is currently a consultant. She lives in London.