Here’s an audio version
Ever heard of the Antikythera Mechanism? Neither had I till last week. It was discovered in a 2000 year old shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, and it’s a 2000 year old computer. Raising your eyebrows suspiciously? I don’t blame you! There’s lots of reasons why this is the coolest thing I’ve heard of in a long time, but one of the biggest reasons is that it reminds me to think about how much we don’t know.
About the size of a laptop, the Antikythera mechanism is a wooden frame housing several layers of variously sized gears in complex relationships. There was a handle to turn which would set the mechanism in motion, but the objects propelled by the gears have been lost. In a tale full of intuitive leaps and “Eureka!” moments, the documentary leads us through the process by which the mechanism and its purpose became understood by modern scientists.
Here’s the deal. The objects controlled by the gears were representations of astronomical bodies, the moon and the known planets. The gears were finely crafted based on astronomical observations accurate to nine decimal places. The purpose? To predict eclipses. In the ancient world, astrology was the height of science, and pervasively relevant to everybody in a way we might find difficult to relate to. While undoubtedly possessing symbolic meaning, eclipses would also affect tides, and other aspects of life. Being able to predict them was an astounding feat for inhabitants of the ancient world, and one not limited to Europeans.
The Antikythera Mechanism is clearly a machine, a computer, programmed by the size and relationship of the gears to produce important information. This goes against most of our ideas about technology in the ancient world, and I love to wonder about what else is lying on the ocean floor, or buried under the ground which would shake our beliefs about the past.
The gears were crafted from bronze. Tools and weapons archeologists and anthropologists study to interpret the past are made from metal, stone or fired clay, all materials that last. But what about the things that don’t get preserved? What materials wouldn’t last? What technologies could be made from these? The earliest evidence of writing comes from inscribed shapes on clay tablets. Was this the first incarnation of the idea, or was it practiced in other less durable forms?
And what about the intangible? Just as an example, the ancient Greeks knew the world was round based solely on naked eye observation and analysis, knowledge subsequently lost to Europeans for over 1000 years. What did people before the Greeks know? I’ve been rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune with great enjoyment. In a far future human society which has largely abandoned any technology with the potential to do its own thinking, human capabilities in areas like meditation and intensive body conditioning have become extremely well-honed. Such progress need not be unidirectional. If great knowledge existed and was lost, we’d never know.
Most politically aware people today recognize the myth of progress. We get that stability and well-being in our society do not exist on a one-way trajectory that’s always making us better. Likewise, civilizations rise and fall, and only fragments of them remain to be discovered and interpreted. Was beer discovered or invented? How about cheese? What were the first incarnations of the wheel? What other machines got destroyed or sank to the ocean floor? We’ll never have answers to these questions. Isn’t that wonderful? These little information vacuums are the niches where historical fiction writers love to squeeze in and wiggle around. Every now and then we get incredible glimpses like that offered by the Antikythera mechanism to keep us awed, but mostly, we just wonder what we don’t know.