Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History, Science — Rick Moran @ 5:36 pm

We who live in the 21st century suffer from a breathtaking conceit regarding our ancient human ancestors. We believe that the poor dears were ignorant little children, occasionally making a breakthrough discovery to move the train of human knowledge along (some even going so far as to believe that aliens were responsible for it all rather than people) but by and large, seeing the ancients as a dirty, doltish bunch of superstitious ignoramuses with no indoor plumbing and an unhealthy reliance on the mystical in their everyday lives.

This ignores the facts of archeology which paint a much different picture. About 50,000 years ago, our ancestors created art on the walls of caves outside of Lascaux, France that rivals in realism and talent anything that Renaissance painters could do. The Polynesians populated the Islands of the Pacific by crossing expanses of ocean that wouldn’t be duplicated by Europeans for thousands of years. Going the Polynesians one better, it is still a mystery how people from Southeast Asia managed to make it to New Guinea 50,000 years ago.

The Egyptians moved blocks of stone weighing tens of thousands of pounds with little more than levers and rope (the block and tackle pulley system was waiting to be discovered). By sheer brute strength, they carved and maneuvered these stones, stacking them so perfectly that the tolerances achieved would make a modern engineer jealous.

The irrigation system invented by the Mayans was so sophisticated that nothing comparable would be seen until the 19th century. The Mayans also made an unbelievable leap of knowledge by coming up with the concept of zero in mathematics; as counterintuitive in its own right as the invention of quantum mechanics.

And then there were the Greeks. What we know about this astonishing culture has piqued our curiosity and excited our admiration since Medieval times. It’s what we don’t know about them that may, in the end, prove to be even more incredible than anything we could have imagined:

A computer in antiquity would seem to be an anachronism, like Athena ordering takeout on her cellphone.

Known as the Antikythera Mechanism (Nature)But a century ago, pieces of a strange mechanism with bronze gears and dials were recovered from an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece. Historians of science concluded that this was an instrument that calculated and illustrated astronomical information, particularly phases of the Moon and planetary motions, in the second century B.C.

The instrument, the Antikythera Mechanism, sometimes called the world’s first computer, has now been examined with the latest in high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography. A team of British, Greek and American researchers deciphered inscriptions and reconstructed the gear functions, revealing “an unexpected degree of technical sophistication for the period,” it said.

The researchers, led by the mathematician and filmmaker Tony Freeth and the astronomer Mike G. Edmunds, both of the University of Cardiff, Wales, are reporting their results today in the journal Nature.

They said their findings showed that the inscriptions related to lunar-solar motions, and the gears were a representation of the irregularities of the Moon’s orbital course, as theorized by the astronomer Hipparchos. They established the date of the mechanism at 150-100 B.C.

While scientists now know pretty much what the Antikythera mechanism did, we still don’t really have a good idea of what it was for. Possible practical uses for the device include:

* Astrology was commonly practiced in the ancient world. In order to create an astrological chart, the configuration of the heavens at a particular point of time is needed. It can be very difficult and time-consuming to work this out by hand, and a mechanism such as this would have made an astrologer’s work very much easier.

* Calculating solar and lunar eclipses.

* Setting the dates of religious festivals connected with astronomical events

* Adjusting calendars, which were based on lunar cycles as well as the solar year

This new research indicates that the Antikythera mechanism could predict eclipses to the hour of their appearance as well as the orbits of at least Venus and Mars.

The Antikythera mechanism featured wheeled gears whose sophistication and exactness wouldn’t be seen again until the watchmakers of the middle ages. What this device hints at is the probability that much human knowledge and many technological leaps were lost to history following the fall of Greek civilization. Why didn’t this kind of knowledge pass to new generations of humans so that they could build upon and improve what was already done?

Roman stupidity probably had something to do with it, an empire always more willing to plunder and destroy rather than save and study - except that which could assist them in their conquering. And the fall of that empire which plunged the Europe into the so-called “dark ages.” Of course, while barbarians were running wild in Europe, Muslim culture was in full flower, making their own scientific advances. The Muslims, in fact, admired the Greeks immensely and much of what we know of them is largely given to us by Muslim scholars who saved what they could following the great upheavals in Europe.

The Antikythera mechanism reminds us that the human capacity for making great leaps forward in knowledge is not something limited to modern technological man. Throughout the history of our species, these astonishing breakthroughs have occurred in every culture and during every epoch proving that we really are quite clever when we put our minds to it.


  1. You have to admire the faith of the early Christians. I sometimes pray that I can duplicate it in my life. This sounds like one of those “Library of Alexandria” moments in Christian history where, in believing that Christ’s return is imminent, they simply didn’t think that anything pagan had any worth at all. That kind of faith almost sounds like a fantasy, now, doesn’t it?

    Comment by rph098 — 12/3/2006 @ 2:36 am

  2. Quagmire II - Democrats advocate ‘pulling out’

    “Mistake after mistake has been made by this administration. Now, another 13 are dead and hundreds injured…”

    Trackback by Doug Ross @ Journal — 12/3/2006 @ 9:14 am

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