The Antikythera Mechanism; Another Superlative BBC4 Documentary.

We are exceptionally lucky to be living at this moment in time. We have a staggeringly privileged view of who we are and where we stand. We know more about the human body, the size of universe and what atoms are made up of than ever before.

But the corollary of all this is a tendency to view what was known in the past with faint derision. This is grossly unfair.

To take a simple example. For a long time, right up until the 16th century, it was assumed that we were at the centre of the universe, and that everything else revolved around us. But this wasn’t something that had been casually concluded.

If the Earth was moving, as Philolaus had suggested as early as the 5th century B.C in Greece, then why don’t we feel any wind resistance? And if we drop something from the top of a building, shouldn’t it fall at an angle, as a tennis ball would if you dropped it from a moving car?

The most sophisticated argument the Greeks produced against a moving Earth was the absence of stellar parallax. If we were moving, then it should look to us as if  the nearby planets were moving from our (moving) perspective, relative to the distant (and fixed) stars. But that, to the naked eye, doesn’t happen. So clearly, we are not moving.

Eventually, by the early 3rd century B.C. Aristarchus put forward two possibilities. A universe with the Earth at its centre, a geocentric one, or one that resolved around the sun, a heliocentric one. We know from Archimedes that he himself favoured the latter.

The extraordinary devise at the heart of the BBC4 documentary The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Computer very probably originated in Archimedes’ workshop. And it illustrates yet again quite how knowledgeable and ingenious the ancient Greeks were.

Incredibly detailed analysis of this small devise, discovered in 1900 in a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, has shown that what it seems to be is an incredibly intricate astronomical mechanism.

It was designed as a means of illustrating the movements of the planets (no mean feat in itself), and as a way of predicting the solar eclipses that were so much a part of their Metonic calendar. This was a 235 month cycle that was the equivalent of 19 solar years.

In other words, it was how the ancients grappled with the problem of the leap year. For despite their increasingly elaborate attempts to counter it, their seasons were continually falling out of line.

This programme brilliantly illustrates quite how knowledgeable they were then. But conversely, as much as anything else, it encapsulates quite how much we know today compared to any other era in human history.

Because it is only now that we have the capacity to use all of the different scientific strands that we now have to examine and unlock the devise’s extraordinary secrets. In any other era, it would have remained a small muddy lump of ancient metal. Only now were we able to microscopically examine it to reveal the breathtakingly intricate mechanism within.

And it is only as a television documentary that all this information and research can be amalgamated and presented in such an accessible, immediate and enjoyable way.

What this shows once again is that television is the most powerful educating force since the invention of the printing press. And both of course have now been augmented by the arrival of the internet.

If you’d like to know more about this extraordinary devise, go here. Better still, if at all you can, watch this programme.

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  1. […] This was about as per­fect a tele­vi­sion pro­gramme as it’s pos­si­ble to make. And it’s yet another in what is fast prov­ing to be a golden age of sci­ence pro­gram­ming from the BBC (see also, for instance, my ear­lier review of the Antikythera mech­a­nism here). […]

  2. […] once more this qui­etly told and end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing story, which I reviewed more fully here. It’s absolutely riv­et­ing and is not to be […]

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