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Workings of Ancient Calculating Device Deciphered 268

Posted by timothy
from the nearly-unbelievable dept. writes "Scientists have discovered new meaning behind the functions of the Antikythera Mechanism, which has been referred to as the oldest known analog computing device. In addition to providing a means to calculate the dates for solar eclipses, the device apparently tracked the four-year cycles of the Olympiad. From the New York Times article: 'Only now, applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, have experts been able to decipher inscriptions and reconstruct functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism. The latest research has revealed details of dials on the instrument's back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar.'"
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Workings of Ancient Calculating Device Deciphered

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  • Data Sets (Score:5, Informative)

    by KGIII (973947) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @03:47PM (#24407293) Journal

    For those interested here are the data sets and some nifty images available to download:

    The Data []

  • Need one today (Score:5, Informative)

    by whitehatlurker (867714) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @03:53PM (#24407381) Journal
    The article is dated tomorrow. NYT needs a device for calculating time more precisely.
  • cute but... (Score:5, Informative)

    by commodoresloat (172735) * on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @04:08PM (#24407639)
    Bad example; when working as a speech-writer for legal disputes, Demosthenes was actually criticized for revealing his arguments to his opponents before trial; though considered unethical at the time, that approach seems pretty consistent with open source. He also published all of his speeches so that students could learn from them; again, very much an open source practice.
  • Re:Data Sets (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @04:18PM (#24407761)

    Also, a good video of Tatjana van Vark's demonstrator. []

    From her site,

    This model of the Antikythera Mechanism is made after schematic fig. 5 in Nature vol. 444 and includes a Hipparchos Solar Mechanism of my own design. However I see a-1 as an output to drive a hypothetical planetarium as illustrated.

    The Antikythera Mechanism cannot easily be driven from a-1 as any engineer will understand, taking into account the gear ratios. My input is the disk containing the lunar phase mechanism. This works beautifully and allows very subtle setting even with the additional load of my hypothetical planetarium.

    From the engineers point of view d-2 would be the perfect input gear. With a crown gear exactly like a-1 engaging d-2 and a little crank, the Antikythera Mechanism (and planetarium) can be driven smoothly and subtly. Experiments confirm this. There is however as far as I know no sign of this arrangement in the original, it is purely my personal curiosity that made me investigate this.

    My geocentric planetarium is based on modern data of planetary motion and is realised by conventional asymmetrical spur gear differentials as described in engineering text books. It is similar in principle to Mr. Wright's but rather different in details. I do not know of any detailed description of Mr. Wright's excellent work so I worked this out myself. As it represents the same solar mechanism, with good approximations, the differences cannot be great. Mine has 28 gears.

    The strange ratio of a-1/b-1 48/223 is an advantage here. My planetarium, after independent use, can be resynchronised with the Antikythera Mechanism from anywhere in a very wide window of time. Since a-1/b-1 is mirrored in my planetarium to provide a one-year-wheel there the actual ratio is irrelevant. I made b-1 with 223 teeth because I had to make it anyway for e-3 and the information does not exclude this.

    Let's not link her site to spare her bandwidth from the click-happy. The sincerely curious can Google.

  • Re:Rebuild? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @04:18PM (#24407769)

    There is a working version reproduction at the historical museum in Athens, I think.

  • by mangu (126918) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @04:33PM (#24407965)

    Actually, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had more to do with it.

    The cause of that fall is still under debate, but the least that can be said is that it was closely correlated to the rise of the Roman Church. OK, correlation is not causation, but there is no causation without correlation, causation hasn't been disproved either.

    The Church, if anything, managed to save some of the knowledge that would otherwise would have been lost.

    Yes, and the rest of that knowledge was lost when they scraped old parchment to write their own texts []

    And the Church murdering scholars and librarians [] that didn't belong to the Church didn't help too much either. The Church Father known as "Pillar of Faith" [] who had Hypatia killed was the same man who had Mary mother of Jesus proclaimed as an "eternal virgin".

  • Re:12 months? (Score:5, Informative)

    by reverseengineer (580922) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @04:46PM (#24408179)

    The original Roman calendar had ten months, yes, and actually only covered about 300 days, with most of winter considered off-calendar. However, by tradition, the second Roman king, Numa Pompilius reformed this calendar and added January and February (at the end of the calendar), giving the year 12 months (and so at this time, the names of December, etc. as numbered months still made sense). This was the calendar used (with modifications) from roughly 700 BC to the introduction of the Julian calendar in 46BC. The calendar of Numa Pompilius ended up with some crazy leaps and intercalations to keep it reasonably in line with the solar year, so reform was definitely due.

    In doing so, the Romans consulted with Greek astronomers, who had a lot of data about such things (though the Julian calendar is merely a solar calendar that keeps pretty good time with the moon, and not a true lunisolar calendar like one based on the Metonic cycle would be). Greece at the time of the Antikythera mechanism (about 50-100 years earlier than the Julian reform), had in fact just come under Roman control.

    In addition to reforming the "leap" system, January got pushed to the start of the year, making the "number-names" months no longer descriptive, and the months of Quintilis and Sextilis were renamed for Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, respectively.

  • by silentcoder (1241496) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @04:51PM (#24408233) Homepage

    The didn't exactly LIKE one another but they intermarried and got along. Alexander the Great (or rather more to the point, his father Phillip the Great) was Macedonian and would come to rule pretty much all the Greek Islands and (by the end of Alexander's life) most the known ancient world all the way to India.

    There is clear references in Alexander's diary that he suffered some discrimination as a child for being a Macedonian but it was like the difference between a modern-day Scottish and Welsh. Very much like that actually. Ultimately the political differences were small and the cultural differences even smaller. Small enough for Macedonians to become the first Greek emperors anyway.
    Now as for Macedonians having been Slavic - that is a bit of a stretch, the slavic nations as we typically think of them didn't really come into their own for close on a thousand years AFTER the time of Alexander, though they outlasted the Romans by a bit they appeared around the same time.
    I would say it's plausable that the Slavics may have had Macedonian ancestry, since Macedonia was quite possibly the first settlement of any kind of civilization in Europe but that far back we have almost no evidence of anything and that is pure conjecture. The Slavics could just as easily have been there 10 thousand years earlier and just not left any earlier evidence. To say they may be descended from Macedonians is plausable, but no more so than to say they may have been the descendents of interbreeding between early homo-sapiens and early homo-Neanderthalenses that only developed into a more structured society later. Their highly barbarian society (as opposed to the highly tribal Greeks and Macedonians) doesn't really fit with a RECENT common descent though (for what my gutt feeling is worth - which is at least as much as any other person who studied ancient cultural history).

    In the end, the only thing we know for an absolute fact about descent more than one thousand years old is that we are probably ALL descended from Africans our earliest human ancestors were probably dark skinned. Even THEN there are things we do not know - like did the Australian Aborigines split off from the same people who migrated to Europe ? Or did they reach Australia before the continents split ?
    There is no way to know short of DNA research which nobody has done yet.

    *No, the fact that it is written down is NOT proof to a historian. Alexander probably wouldn't lie about being Macedonian as it must have put a crimp on his career prospects, but we cannot know that he DIDN'T - and a king could easilly pretty damn sure that nothing ever gets written down that contradicts his story - so seriously, we have no real proof. Only tiny bits of supporting evidence, history is trying to figure out the most sensible explanations for them, knowing one of your students will probably come up with something better than you did and be too lazy to write in his paper.

  • Re:Rebuild? (Score:2, Informative)

    by hkz (1266066) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @04:54PM (#24408283)

    You mean like this? []

  • by Wylfing (144940) <brian AT wylfing DOT net> on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @05:00PM (#24408393) Homepage Journal

    Dear HighOrbit,

    Please take a history class, or read a book. There were plenty of heliocentric and round-earth hypotheses put forward during the classical Greek period. Often, the observations and measurement-taking were fantastically good. Furthermore, science doesn't seek to prove anything.

  • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @05:12PM (#24408565)

    It is very telling that the Renaissance only began with the translation of the Bible into a common tongue, instead of being exclusively in Latin - that only priests could read.

    Well, that would certainly be telling. If it were true.

    During the so-called Dark Ages, Latin was the language of educated Christians, just as Arabic was the language of educated Muslims - all REAL scholarship was written in Latin or Arabic (Yah, yah, Hindus used another language for scholarship, but since we're talking "Dark Ages", we're talking Europe), depending on the source. Latin (or Arabic) was not exclusive to the priesthood - it was taught everywhere literacy was taught, as PART of literacy.

    Note that a bit later, French filled a similar role - it was the Lingua Franca for any person who laid claim to education. Still later, English has taken up that role, which is perhaps why you didn't understand the relation between Latin and Education - you grew up speaking the modern equivalent of Latin.

  • by mdmkolbe (944892) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @05:18PM (#24408651)

    Wasn't it a mob of rabid Christians that finally succeeded in destroying the great library of Alexandria?

    We don't know. The Wikipedia page lists at least four theories about how or when the library was destroyed. Two are due to conquests by the Roman Emperor, one due to conquest by Muslims and one by Christians when the pagan temples were ordered destroyed by the Roman Emperor.

  • by HighOrbit (631451) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @05:34PM (#24408921)

    Sure, if by "save" you mean "appropriate for exclusive use".

    Yes, the fall of the Roman Empire immediately preceded the Dark Ages. However, problem of the Dark Ages was not so much that there was no central empire to act as a beacon of light, but more that education and knowledge was available only to the clergy (and the wealthy, via the clergy). It is very telling that the Renaissance only began with the translation of the Bible into a common tongue, instead of being exclusively in Latin - that only priests could read.

    It sounds like you are accusing the Church of suppressing education and civilization. Are you saying the collaspe of education and civilization had nothing to do with that whole burning and pillaging thing from the pagan barbarian hordes such as the Goths and Vandals? As far as the availability of education, I doubt the tillers of the land in the Late Empire were anymore literate than the tillers of the land in the Dark Ages. What did happen is that trade was choked off and the economy collapsed as a result of a bunch of petty barbarians chieftans destroying the political and economic unity of the Empire. The literate magister of the latin villa (ruling class) was replaced with an illiterate german lord of the manor

    The old educated economic classes were destroyed and disposed by the germans. The Church was the only educated class left, but by accident and not by their own design. They were "exclusively" educated because they provided education themselves internally, not because they choked it off to the rest of the world. The church held it togather as best they could. They were certainly not responsible for the advent of Dark Ages as you seem to imply.

  • Re:Yeah but... (Score:3, Informative)

    by gd2shoe (747932) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @06:06PM (#24409343) Journal

    Aside from the language chosen, I'm astonished that an AC actually posted something mildly funny! []

  • by lelitsch (31136) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @07:02PM (#24409991)

    Actually, pretty much everyone pitched in on the destruction:

    -Julius Ceasar burned it down in 48BCE (pagan)
    -Emperor Aurelian destroyed the remains in 274 CE (pagan)
    -Emperor Theophilus ordered it destroyed in 391 CE (Christian)
    -Amr ibn al 'Aas burned what was left of it in 642 CE (Muslim)

    But by all accounts, most of the damage was done in 48.

  • by Opyros (1153335) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @10:07PM (#24411489) Journal
    And this article [] argues that the destruction was gradual, and may have been as much due to physical deterioration of the scrolls over time as any act of violence.
  • by giorgist (1208992) on Wednesday July 30, 2008 @11:11PM (#24411899)
    Amm ... look up Byzantium. It never saw a dark ages but continued to creat and inovate.

    The Renaissance was in part as a result of the sacking of Kostantinopole were phylosophers and scientists had to flee to Italy.

    The Bible and espcialy the new tesament was written in Greek the language of teh Byzantium as opposed to Latin.

  • by mdmkolbe (944892) on Thursday July 31, 2008 @02:28AM (#24412883)

    And of course there's the modern-day refusal to accept natural selection

    The official position of the Church as established in the Papal encyclical "Humani generis" is the opposite of what you claim it is.

  • by jstott (212041) on Thursday July 31, 2008 @04:07AM (#24413379)

    Another very famous example is the Church excommunication of Galileo for daring to suggest the earth orbits the sun.

    Sigh, here we go again with the same Galileo foolishness. C'mon people, if you're going to keep invoking Galileo, at least read the Wikipedia [] page first, so you know what actually happened.

    First point: Copernicus was the one who suggested that the earth orbits around the sun. He was also a Catholic priest.

    Second point: Galileo provided the observational evidence to support Copernicus, but this isn't what got him in trouble.

    What got Galileo in trouble is that he took his scientific ideas (including the wacky ones that no one ever hears about, like the tides being caused by the slowing down and speeding up of the earth's rotation every day) and was drawing theological conclusions from them. To talk about the earth going around the sun as a philosophical point was something the Church could live with (hence the good relations Copernicus enjoined). For an untrained layman to persist in making theological claims, however, is quite something else in the Church's mind (see Brodrick's biography of Galileo for more details concerning the theological controversy). Most of you get a up in arms when creationists insist that the earth is only 6000 years old, because that's an imposition of religion on to science, why shouldn't the Church get upset when scientists try to tell it about God?

    That Galileo also had a habit of publicly ridiculing anyone who disagreed with him did not help matters. For example, his book "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems" one of the three literary figures parrots the words of Pope Urban VIII. Because Urban was an Aristotlean, Galileo named his character "Simplicius"; understandably, the Pope was not impressed. This did not improve his standing in the eyes of the powers that be.

    In short, the scientific debate was largely peripheral to the Galileo affair. What got Galileo in trouble is that he insisted on drawing theological conclusions from his scientific data.


The universe does not have laws -- it has habits, and habits can be broken.