Researchers claim to solve the mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism

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When Demetrius Kondos and his crew of sponge divers discovered the wreck of the Antikythera in 1900, they weren’t trying to make history or change archaeologists’ understanding of high technology in the late first century B.C. They were mostly killing time.

The crew made some dives off the Greek island of Antikythera while waiting for favorable winds to continue their journey towards North Africa. While diving, they spotted a shipwreck. A restoration mission in 1901 yielded a huge stockpile of statues, sculptures, and coins, putting the site on the proverbial map. All of these things happened before anyone realized that the expedition had also returned with indisputable proof of the world’s first analog computer: the Antikythera Mechanism.

The Antikythera Mechanism as it exists today. image via WikipediaCC BY 2.5

Today’s Antikythera mechanism consists of about 82 fragments, but only a third of the original is believed to have survived. Researchers have known that the device has been a calendar for decades, but understanding that an object represents a calendar and understanding exactly how it is formed are two different things. This is especially true when the said organism represents a level of industrial development that European civilizations will not achieve again for another 1000-1400 years.

Functionally, the Antikythera Mechanism is a type of corridor, a mechanical model of the Solar System that shows the processions of different planets and moons over time. The device once contained a complex system of gears that modeled the five planets known in antiquity as well as the cycles those planets were thought to follow. Astronomers in ancient times believed that the planets moved in circular orbits, but geocentric spherical models of planetary motion common at the time could not explain the retrograde motion of the planets that we sometimes observe from Earth (the apparent retrograde motion occurs when the planet appears to be moving backwards). in the sky).

Over the past few decades, a number of projects have attempted to elicit new details about the Antikythera Mechanism and how it works. In 2005, researchers used X-ray computed tomography to decipher new, previously unseen details around the back of the device. Dr. Tony Frit has worked on this project for nearly 20 years, and has led the latest attempt to explore how the Antikythera Mechanism was originally created.

Scientists who have tried this task for decades are not without it some An idea of ​​the shape of the device. We know the dimensions of the box in which the mechanism was originally kept, which advantageously limits its size and physical dimensions. Parts of the Instruction Manual are located on the front and back covers of the box. like Freeth et al TypeHowever:

Our challenge was to create a new model that would fit all the remaining evidence. Features on the main steering wheel indicate that it calculated the motions of the planets with a complex annular system (gears installed on other gears), but its design remained a mystery. The tomography revealed a wealth of unexpected clues in the inscriptions, which describe the ancient Greek Cosmos9 in the foreground, but attempts to solve the gear system failed to match all the data. The guides frame a circular system at the front, but the space for the gears is very limited. There were also unexplained components in Part D, detected by X-ray CT, and technical difficulties in calculating the phases of the moon. Then came the discovery in tomography of surprisingly complex periods of the planets Venus and Saturn, which made the task even more difficult.

According to the authors, they created the first model that reasonably demonstrates all known functions of the Antikythera Mechanism. This is the kind of claim that might seem impossible to verify given the paucity of the device we still have, but the authors argue otherwise, saying, “What has so strongly surprised us in the making of the current model is the lack of these options: the limitations created by the surviving evidence are strict and difficult to meet.” it out”.

What follows in the article is more than a dozen pages that show how Frit and his team put together their model of how the full Antikythera mechanism works. If the idea of ​​calculating the most probable design of a complex system of gears under near-impossible conditions appeals to you, you will seriously dig this paper.

According to the authors, the assembled machine probably looked like this:

Frit and colleagues don’t claim to have reconstructed the exact craft Antikythera mechanism, but they believe their method is the first reconstruction that describes exactly what the machine was capable of while providing a working, coherent model of how it was built.

Unknown unknowns, finally known

The existence of the Antikythera Mechanism is a humble reminder of how little history is actually preserved in the historical record. Scientists in the early twentieth century were surprised that the device even existed in part because of this no It looks like a one-off or the only example of its kind. First generation models tend to have a lot of figurative wire dangling from the back and feature the liberal, transverse application of the tape. The initially modest mass of rock divers caught from the ocean was a high-quality product.

Exploded view of gears. It’s easy to imagine a Greek engineer on the run circa 80 BC with a pen stuck behind his ear and crazy “**** everything, we do five planetsA twinkle in his eye.

Archaeologists believe there was more than one Antikythera mechanism built along the same lines. The Roman statesman Cicero wrote a description of an apparatus that may have been a dynasty, claiming that Archimedes designed two of them and that General Marcus Claudius Marcellus brought them to Rome in 212 BC. While none of these devices is thought to be a literal Antikythera mechanism, it is possible that the ancient Greeks made similar devices 200 years before the device was built that we were lucky to get us out of the Mediterranean.

If the model developed by Freeth and others is accurate, it means that throughout the 20th and 21st centuries scientists have finally deciphered the specific functions provided by the Antikythera Mechanism. By doing so, it gave us a more accurate idea of ​​the traditions of knowledge on which it was based. One of the coolest facts about the Antikythera Mechanism is that the gears that tracked the Moon’s advance correctly modeled the fact that it travels at different speeds at different points in its orbit. The ancient Greeks didn’t understand the complex orbital dynamics, but they did find a way to accurately model behavior that they couldn’t (correctly) explain.

Having an accurate model of both what the Antikythera Mechanism did and how it did it is a scientific breakthrough – as long as the new model stands up to long-term scrutiny.

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