Cosmic calculator


Written on Thursday, December 07, 2006 by Gemini

Using high-tech to peer beneath the surface of the 2,100-year-old machine, scientists have discovered gears that work the world’s oldest astronomy computer

(Picture) Using high-tech to peer beneath the surface of the 2,100-year-old Antikythera Mechanism, scientists say the device could predict the ballet of the Sun and Moon over decades and calculate a lunar anomaly that would bedevil Isaac Newton himself

An international team of astronomers, mathematicians, computer experts, script analysts and conservation experts has unravelled the secrets of a 2,000-year-old computer which could transform the way we think about the ancient world.

Professor Mike Edmunds and Dr Tony Freeth, of Cardiff University led an international team of scientists who believe they have finally cracked the workings of the Antikythera Mechanism, a clock-like astronomical calculator dating from the second century BC.

Remnants of a broken wooden and bronze case containing more than 30 gears and cogs was found by divers exploring a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera at the turn of the 20th century. Scientists have been trying to reconstruct it ever since. The new research suggests it is more sophisticated than anyone previously thought.

Detailed work on the gears in the mechanism show that it was able to track astronomical movements with remarkable precision. The calculator was able to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the Zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The team believe it may also have predicted the positions of some or all of the planets.

The findings, revealed in the journal Nature, suggest that Greek technology was far more advanced than previously thought. No other civilisation is known to have created anything as complicated for another thousand years. “This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind,” said Professor Edmunds. “The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely well.”

The device contained ‘calendar’ dials, inscribed with the names of the months and the signs of the zodiac. Winding these dials to a future date lined up other dials capable of predicting the position of the moon, the phase of the moon and whether there would be an eclipse. The team was made up of researchers from UK-based Cardiff University, the Greek National Archaeological Museum of Athens and the Universities of Athens and Thessaloniki.

They were aided by UK-based X-Tek, who developed powerful X-Ray computer technology to help them study the corroded fragments of the machine, while computer giant Hewlett-Packard provided imaging technology to enhance the surface details of the machine. The mechanism is in over 80 pieces and stored in precisely controlled conditions in Athens where it cannot be touched. Recreating its workings was a difficult, painstaking process.

The researchers are now hoping to create a computer model of how the machine worked, and, in time, a full working replica. It is still uncertain what the ancient Greeks used the mechanism for, or how widespread this technology was. “It does raise the question what else were they making at the time,” said Edmunds. “In terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”

Still in fragments, the mechanism, plus a reconstruction, are on display in Greece at the National Archeological Museum of Athens.

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