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posted by janrinok on Friday September 23 2022, @03:25PM   Printer-friendly

Researchers Claim to Solve the Mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism - ExtremeTech:

When Dimitrios Kondos and his crew of sponge divers found the Antikythera shipwreck in 1900, they weren't trying to make history or upend archaeologists' understanding of high technology in the late 1st century BC. They were mostly killing time.

The crew made some dives off the Greek island of Antikythera while waiting for favorable winds to continue their journey toward North Africa. While diving, they spotted a shipwreck. A recovery mission in 1901 yielded a hefty stash of statues, sculptures, and coins, putting the site on the proverbial map. All of these things happened well before anyone realized the expedition had also returned with incontrovertible evidence of the world's first analog computer: the Antikythera Mechanism.

The Antikythera Mechanism consists of some 82 fragments today, but only roughly a third of the original device is believed to survive. Researchers have known that the device was a calendar for decades, but understanding that an object represents a calendar and understanding how exactly how it was constructed are two different things. This is especially true when said object represents a level of manufacturing sophistication that European civilizations wouldn't achieve again for another 1000 – 1400 years.

Functionally, the Antikythera Mechanism is a type of orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system that shows the procession of various planets and moons over time. The device once contained a complex system of gears that modeled both the five planets known to antiquity as well as the epicycles those planets were believed to follow. [...]

Over the last few decades, a number of projects have attempted to intuit new details about the Antikythera Mechanism and how it functioned. In 2005, researchers used X-ray computed tomography to decode new, previously invisible details about the back of the machine. Dr. Tony Freeth worked on that project nearly 20 years ago, and he led the most recent attempt to intuit exactly how the Antikythera Mechanism was originally constructed.

The scientists who have attempted this task over the decades are not without some idea of what the device looked like. We know the dimensions of the box in which the mechanism was originally kept, which usefully constrains its size and physical dimensions. There are fragments of an "instruction manual" on the front and back inside covers of the box. As Freeth et al write, however:

Our challenge was to create a new model to match all the surviving evidence. Features on the Main Drive Wheel indicate that it calculated planetary motions with a complex epicyclic system (gears mounted on other gears), but its design remained a mystery. The tomography revealed a wealth of unexpected clues in the inscriptions, describing an ancient Greek Cosmos9 at the front, but attempts to solve the gearing system failed to match all the data. The evidence defines a framework for an epicyclic system at the front, but the spaces available for the gears are extremely limited. There were also unexplained components in Fragment D, revealed by the X-ray CT, and technical difficulties calculating the phases of the Moon. Then came the discovery in the tomography of surprisingly complex periods for the planets Venus and Saturn, making the task very much harder.

If the model Freeth et al have advanced is accurate, it means scientists throughout the 20th and 21st century have finally teased apart the specific functions the Antikythera Mechanism provided. In doing so, they've given us a more accurate idea of what knowledge traditions it drew on. One of the coolest facts about the Antikythera Mechanism is that the gearing that tracked the progression of the Moon properly modeled 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 model behavior they couldn't (correctly) explain.

Having an accurate model of both what the Antikythera Mechanism did and how it did it is a scientific breakthrough—so long as the new model stands up to long-term scrutiny.

Journal Reference:
Tony Freeth, David Higgon, Aris Dacanalis,et al. A Model of the Cosmos in the ancient Greek Antikythera Mechanism [open]. Sci Rep 11, 5821 (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-84310-w

Original Submission

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  • (Score: 5, Informative) by John Bresnahan on Friday September 23 2022, @03:33PM (3 children)

    by John Bresnahan (5989) on Friday September 23 2022, @03:33PM (#1273192)

    This channel has numerous videos about recreating the Antikythera Mechanism, using tools and techniques available to the ancient Greeks: []

    • (Score: 2, Informative) by UncleBen on Friday September 23 2022, @08:57PM

      by UncleBen (8563) on Friday September 23 2022, @08:57PM (#1273261)

      Came to say this. "Claim to solve"? Done, solving the actual manner of construction underway.

    • (Score: 2) by VLM on Saturday September 24 2022, @03:33PM (1 child)

      by VLM (445) on Saturday September 24 2022, @03:33PM (#1273404)

      Clickspring is awesome, and I watch, but he's just making a replica.

      The academics are trying to outthink them to figure stuff out.

      Like its one thing to find an instruction manual that does NOT say pi is 22/7 and you can use it to, whatever, build a padlock in 1853 or something. But if you read the instructions really close, you can see it implies pi is exactly 22/7. Now that has all kinds of academic paper implications. Sure, they built the padlock parts on an ancient metal lathe but 22/7 has a small enough number of decimal places that you know they didn't had precision ball bearings in that 1853 lathe. Did they know in 1853 that pi is a non-rational number that can't be represented perfectly by a two integer fraction, even the slightest implication? I mean, for us its all common knowledge of course, but for some theoretical archeologist its a good question.

      So the science types are not trying to build one or figure out how it was built, but answer questions by writing papers, is there any indication these people had the slightest idea that the orbits are just a tiny but important bit elliptical instead of circular? How much did they REALLY know about the orbit of the moon or whatever? Even how they round long decimal place numbers into fixed gear wheel tooth counts has certain implications both for their technology level at the time AND their astronomy level.

      I'm intrigued by the scientific research aside from simple reproduction and superficial explanation. Is there "wiggle room" built in to the system to handle elliptical orbits (spoiler, I think the answer is "no" but it would be so cool if the answer were "yes"). A arm pointer is wiggly or there's some implication the predictions are as unreliable as you'd expect from assuming circular orbits instead of elliptical, etc?

      • (Score: 2) by ChrisMaple on Sunday September 25 2022, @06:12AM

        by ChrisMaple (6964) on Sunday September 25 2022, @06:12AM (#1273522)

        According to wikipedia, pi was proved irrational in 1761.

  • (Score: 5, Funny) by Rosco P. Coltrane on Friday September 23 2022, @03:48PM (3 children)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (4757) on Friday September 23 2022, @03:48PM (#1273202)

    but it read "CONFUSE-A-DIVER - Fake mechanism to troll sponge divers. Put in boat, sink and wait for diver for endless hours of fun."

    • (Score: 3, Funny) by istartedi on Friday September 23 2022, @08:18PM (2 children)

      by istartedi (123) on Friday September 23 2022, @08:18PM (#1273254) Journal

      Worse yet, I'm pretty sure we've voided the warranty.

      Appended to the end of comments you post. Max: 120 chars.
      • (Score: 2) by Gaaark on Friday September 23 2022, @10:18PM

        by Gaaark (41) on Friday September 23 2022, @10:18PM (#1273274) Journal

        Yup! I can JUST see some of the red film stuff still on it, like they used to put on the Radio Shack screws all those years ago... :)

        --- Please remind me if I haven't been civil to you: I'm channeling MDC. ---Gaaark 2.0 ---
      • (Score: 2) by maxwell demon on Sunday September 25 2022, @05:14PM

        by maxwell demon (1608) on Sunday September 25 2022, @05:14PM (#1273574) Journal

        I'm pretty sure storage in salt water wasn't covered by the warranty anyway.

        The Tao of math: The numbers you can count are not the real numbers.
  • (Score: 2) by turgid on Friday September 23 2022, @08:14PM

    by turgid (4318) Subscriber Badge on Friday September 23 2022, @08:14PM (#1273253) Journal

    It has things that go round. It's what they used to make in the olden days.