New Scientist editor Marchant debuts with a riveting look at the mysterious Antikythera mechanism.
Fragments of this 2,000-year-old bronze mechanical calculator were discovered in the wreck of an ancient Greek cargo ship in 1901. The three pieces, made up of dials, pointers and at least 30 small gearwheels with interlocking triangular teeth and numerous inscriptions, were dazzling in their complexity, especially for an ancient artifact. The device, which dates to the first century BCE, was far ahead of its time; technological and design complexity of this caliber would not be seen again for another 1,200 years. Its function and purpose have puzzled scientists ever since its discovery. Marchant, who wrote about it for the journal Nature in 2006, takes a more in-depth view here, chronicling the fascinating history of the mechanism and the thinkers who have sought to unlock its secrets. The book’s early sections, describing the mechanism’s discovery by sponge divers, read almost like a sea-adventure story. The dives were treacherous; one man died, and two more were paralyzed during the salvage effort. The most engaging chapters, however, portray the many brilliant minds in many scientific fields that have applied their expertise to the task of solving the Antikythera mystery. Physicists used X-rays and CT scans to find out more about the fragments, while engineers puzzled over its function. It is now thought to have been as an astronomical calculator. The curator of the London Science Museum spent 20 years, using only ancient Greek tools, trying to reconstruct the device. Even celebrities like marine researcher Jacques Cousteau and author Arthur C. Clarke were intrigued. Marchant does not shy away from the science involved—astronomy, mathematics, engineering and radiology—but the material is consistently accessible.
A valuable, fast-moving look at the history—and mystery—of the world’s first analog computer.