Researchers Claim to Solve Mystery of Antikythera Mechanism

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When Dimitrios Kondos and his team of sponge divers discovered the Antikythera wreck in 1900, they weren’t trying to make history or upend archaeologists’ understanding of high technology in the late 1st century BC. They are mostly killing time.

The crew did some diving off the Greek island of Antikythera while waiting for a tailwind to continue their journey to North Africa. While diving, they found a wreck. A restoration mission in 1901 produced a large number of statues, sculptures and coins, placing the site on the well-known map. All of this happened before anyone realized that the expedition also returned with indisputable evidence of the world’s first analog computer: the Antikythera Mechanism.

The Antikythera mechanism that exists today. Image via Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5

The Antikythera mechanism consists of about 82 fragments today, but only about a third of the original mechanism is believed to have survived. Researchers have known for decades that the device is a calendar, but understanding an object represents a calendar and understanding how it is constructed are two different things. This is especially true when the objects in question represent a level of manufacture that European civilization will not be able to reach again for another 1000 to 1400 years.

Functionally, the Antikythera Mechanism is a mechanical model of the solar system that shows how various planets and moons change over time. The device once contained a complex gear system that simulated the five planets known from ancient times and the epicycles these planets were thought to follow. Ancient astronomers believed that planets moved in circular orbits, but the geocentric, perfectly spherical planetary motion model that prevailed at the time could not account for the retrograde planetary motion we occasionally observe from Earth (retrograde apparent motion occurs when a planet appears to be moving) ) backwards in the sky).

Over the past few decades, many projects have attempted to intuitively learn new details about the Antikythera mechanism and how it works. In 2005, researchers used X-ray computed tomography to decode new details on the back of the machine that were not previously visible. Dr. Tony Fries, who worked on the project nearly 20 years ago, led the most recent attempt to gain a visual understanding of how the Antikythera mechanism was originally constructed.

Scientists who have been trying the task for decades are not without Some Learn how the device will look. We know the dimensions of the box that originally held the mechanism, which helps limit its size and physical dimensions. On the front and back of the box is a fragment of an “Instruction for Use”. However, as Freeth et al. wrote:

Our challenge is to create a new model that matches all surviving evidence. Features on the main drive wheel suggest it uses a complex planetary system (gears mounted on other gears) to calculate planetary motion, but its design remains a mystery. Tomography revealed a wealth of unexpected clues in the inscription, describing an ancient Greek Cosmos 9 at the front, but attempts to solve the drivetrain failed to match all the data. Evidence defines the frame of the forward planetary system, but the space available for gears is extremely limited. There are also unexplained components in Fragment D revealed by X-ray CT, as well as technical difficulties in calculating the phases of the moon. The complex cycles of the planets Venus and Saturn were then discovered in tomography, making the task even more difficult.

According to the authors, they created the first model that can reasonably demonstrate all known capabilities of the Antikythera mechanism. This claim may seem unsubstantiated given how little equipment we still have, but the authors take a different view, saying: “In making the current model, we were impressed by how few options were available: The restrictions are severe and difficult to meet.”

The article follows a dozen or so pages of how Freeth and his team assembled their model to understand how the full Antikythera mechanism must work.If the idea of ​​calculating the most probable design for a complex gear system under nearly impossible conditions appeals to you, you will seriously Dig this paper.

According to the authors, the assembled machine might look like this:

Freeth and his colleagues do not claim that they have reconstructed a literal, precise Antikythera mechanism, but they believe their reconstruction is the first to adequately describe the machine’s capabilities while providing a cohesive, practical model to explain how it was built.

Unknown unknown, finally know

The existence of the Antikythera mechanism is a humbling reminder of how little history is actually preserved in the historical record. Scientists in the early 20th century were shocked by the existence of such a device, in part because it No Looks like a one-off or the only example of its type. First-generation prototypes tended to have a lot of metaphorical wires hanging in the back, and occasional tape was liberally applied. The humble rock diver’s block originally fished out of the ocean used to be highly finished.

Exploded view of the transmission. It’s easy to imagine a Greek engineer circa 80 BC with a stylus behind his ear and “**** everything, we’re doing five planets” madness in his eyes.

Archaeologists believe that more than one Antikythera mechanism was built along a similar route. Roman statesman Cicero described a device that may have been a rangefinder, claiming that Archimedes designed two of them and that they were made by Marcus Claudius in 212 BC. brought to Rome by General Cyrus. While none of these devices are considered literal Antikythera mechanisms, it is possible that the ancient Greeks built similar devices 200 years before the one we were fortunately dug up from the Mediterranean Sea is thought to have been built.

If the model proposed by Freeth et al. is accurate, it means that scientists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have finally teased out the specific functions provided by the Antikythera mechanism. By doing so, they give us a more precise picture of which intellectual traditions it draws from. One of the coolest facts about Antikythera’s mechanics is the fact that the gear that tracks the moon’s movement correctly simulates the fact that it travels at different speeds at different points in its orbit. The ancient Greeks didn’t understand complex orbital dynamics, but they found a way to accurately simulate behavior they couldn’t (correctly) explain.

As long as the new model stands up to long-term scrutiny, it is a scientific breakthrough to understand exactly what and how the Antikythera mechanism works.

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