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Tech Q&A

Jo Marchant

Describe your latest project.
Decoding the Heavens is a cross between a history book and an adventure story. It starts with the discovery in 1900 of an ancient shipwreck filled with treasure. Among the precious statues and jewellery, divers found a mysterious clockwork machine, packed full of gearwheels, pointers, and inscriptions, but battered and corroded after 2,000 years under the sea. The book follows a succession of characters over the past century who became obsessed with working out what the device was and devoted themselves to discovering its secrets, no matter what the cost. When the answer was finally revealed, it turned upside down our ideas of what the ancient Greeks were capable of and where the technology responsible for our own modern world really came from. It's a story with passion, feuds, danger, battles, ancient wisdom, state-of-the-art technology, and even aliens. Oh, and it's all true.

  1. Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer -- and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets
    $9.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[A] gripping and varied account…Fascinating final chapter." Nature

    “Marchant goes behind the scenes...[and] gives clear explanations of the questions and topics involved, including Greek astronomy and clockwork mechanisms....This globe-trotting, era-spanning mystery should absorb armchair scientists of all kinds." Publishers Weekly

What inspires you to sit down and write?
I'm not sure if this is going to sound pretentious, but it's the challenge of taking an idea or an insight, something intangible and fleeting that exists only in your head, and finding a way to make it real.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I just took it and scored the lowest possible rating. I hope you're not too disappointed. I'm fascinated by science and technology, so perhaps that makes me a geek to some extent, but I don't think that fascination necessarily needs to be accompanied by an obsession with comics, computer programming, or coloured pens. I'm hooked by the creativity that goes with science — the continual flow of new ways of looking at the world — and what that means for how we see ourselves.

What do you do for relaxation?
Sprawl out on the rug in the living room with a mug of coffee and the Sunday papers. Either that or wander down to my local park to feed the ducks. Actually, the coots are my favourite — they have the best-looking feet in the world.

What's your favorite blog right now?
Perhaps this is cheating because it's written by a friend of mine, but I love Wandering Gaia. Science journalist Gaia Vince is travelling the world to witness firsthand the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on local people. She talks about things you don't really hear anywhere else — as I write this, she's in India, and in recent posts she has described how people in Bhopal are still being poisoned today and how farmers in the state of Gujarat are facing ruined livelihoods as the rising seawater floods their land with salt. Gaia always manages to find beauty in the people and places she writes about, though. And what I like most about the tales on her blog, from a wireless network high in the mountains of Nepal, to an organisation helping those farmers retrain as saltworkers, to two little boys flying their fluttering scrap of a kite against the deep blue sky, is their enduring sense of hope.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Douglas. The infinite improbability drive has to be my favourite invention of all time.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
A 1948 book called Animal Wonderland by Frank W. Lane. It was given to my Mum as a school prize, and a generation later I found it on the shelf at home. It's a series of essays about the wild and wonderful goings-on of the animal world, from the fastest creature to the strongest, from hedgehogs carrying fruit on their prickles to birds flying piggyback. I thought it was the coolest thing — I still remember a picture of a snake caught in a spider's web. The book described a lot of mad experiments, too, such as intelligence tests on bees and monkeys, exposing insects to the conditions of interstellar space (they survived), and firing frozen turkeys into planes. I'm still haunted, though, by one study involving some caterpillars that usually follow nose-to-tail in the wild. When the experimenter placed them in a ring on the rim of a vase, they marched around nonstop for eight days, almost to the point of starvation, before one of them finally broke the circle.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Anything that helps us to reduce the amount of natural resources we use. Technology is wonderful, but having a planet to live on is better.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Actually, I'm very happy with my computer — it looks great, plays music, connects me to the wealth of information on the internet, and lets me phone friends for free — what more could I want? I suppose if it could tell me when I was about to make a bad decision that would be pretty useful. Though I'd probably ignore it.

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Jo Marchant is a former editor for Nature magazine and the current editor for New Scientist. She traveled to Athens to research the Antikythera fragments, interviewing most of the people involved in the project. She lives in London.

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