The Celestial Antikythera Mechanism: the Second Parthenon of Hellenic Civilization

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Painting of the Antikythera Mechanism by the mathematician Dionysios Kriaris. Courtesy Dionysios Kriaris.

Prologue

In the spring of 1900, sponge divers discovered the Antikythera Mechanism in a sunken ship in the waters of the tiny island of Antikythera, halfway between Crete and Peloponnesos. The reason why the Antikythera Mechanism has been attracting the attention of scientists and scholars for about 120 years is simple. There’s an astronomical computer in the backbone of this fabulous device, which is one of the most interesting and extraordinary examples of inventiveness and ingenuity in human history.

People the world over have been suffering from climate chaos, the distressing and deadly pandemic, and the fear of another world war. In such a dangerous time, people starve for good news.

They are astonished and pleased to hear about the Antikythera Mechanism – a Parthenon-like computer with columns of science and technology, and a back frieze that predicts the future of heavens and Earth. This is a gadget of great human excellence designed for the public good.

I have narrated in my recent book how and why the Greeks built this mind-boggling astronomical device, The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer (Universal Publishers, 2021).

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Front cover of my book from a painting of the front (left and lower right) and back (upper right) views of the Antikythera Mechanism by Evi Sarantea.

The book explains the reasons the Greeks constructed such an astonishing astronomical computer, basically, with scientific technology very much like the science and technology of our time. And yet the astronomical computer is 2,200 years old.

This is really wonderful news because the surviving one-third of the original device, on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, is a time machine that unites us as never before with our Greek ancestors. Hundreds of books and archaeological treasures in museums all over the world document the virtues (and handicaps) of the Greeks, but nothing like the Antikythera device captures the astounding genius of Hellenic science and civilization.

Aristotle and Alexander the Great prepared the ground for the birth of the Antikythera computer.

Aristotle and Alexander the Great

Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great. He shaped his mind. Aristotle was the foremost thinker of the ancient Greek world, perhaps of all time. He invented political theory and the science of zoology-biology. He urged Alexander to unite mainland Hellas and to eliminate the Persian threat to Greek freedom. Alexander followed his teacher’s advice. He united the Greek poleis (city-states) and conquered Persia. This enabled him to set the foundations for the spread of Greek and Aristotelean ideas all over the world.

The Renaissance

We have been connected to the Greeks since the Renaissance, when merely a few of the ancient Greek philosophical and scientific books triggered the revolutionary ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. The Heliocentric Theory of Aristarchos of Samos, a third Century BCE cosmologist, became the focus of Copernicus. The mathematical physics of Archimedes enlightened Galileo and Newton. The West was set on fire for a better understanding of Hellenic science and civilization.

In Italian city-states like Venice, Florence, Padua and Rome, princes, wealthy merchants, and Pope Nicholas V funded the translation of ancient Greek books into Latin. Greek scholars brought these treasures to Western Europe. They were escaping their collapsing country taken over by Mongol Turks in 1453.

The works of ancient Greek scientists like Euclid, Eudoxos, Apollonios of Perga, Aristarchos of Samos, Ktesibios, Eratosthenes, Archimedes, Poseidonios and philosophers like Aristotle provided the theory and examples of the workings of nature and the Cosmos.

Greek thought sparked Western culture, probing it to think about the world in a critical way for the discovery of truth on how nature works. This demanded no interference from superstition.

In the preface of the third edition of his Early Greek Philosophy, the British scholar John Burnett said in 1920 that science is “thinking about the world in the Greek way.”

The 15th century Renaissance was a blurred mirror of what had taken place in Alexandria, Egypt, and around Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century of our era. This half millennium was, to some degree, and especially the first 300 years, a golden age of Greek science and civilization characterized by university-like schools (Mouseia, Temples of the Muses, goddesses of learning) and Libraries holding copies of as many Greek books as possible.

The Hellenic passion of the Renaissance sculpted our world: legitimizing universities, the study of Greek thought, and institutionalizing the Aristotelean way of advancing science. This combined knowledge of Greek science, curiosity, asking questions in an effort to discover the truth, and admiration and love for nature.

The Tablet / Meteoroskopeion

The Antikythera Mechanism, which the ancient Greeks probably called Tablet or Meteoroskopeion, was the logical outcome of the crowning sciences of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and almost perfect metallurgy and engineering.

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The seven largest fragments of the Tablet, front, and back views. Fragment A, the governing part of the computer, includes 27 of the 30 surviving gears. Courtesy of Tom Malzbender and Hewlett Packard.

There’s little doubt that Archimedes, without doubt the greatest scientist ever, almost certainly guided those who built the Antikythera Tablet / Meteoroskopeion. He flourished in Syracuse, Sicily, in the third century BCE. Yet the astronomer who probably supervised its construction, Hipparchos, was on the caliber of Archimedes. He was the greatest astronomer of ancient Greece.

Hipparchos worked in Rhodes in the second century BCE. He observed the sky, but he also used astronomical data from Babylonia and Egypt. He invented plane trigonometry and shaped mathematical astronomy.

His successor was Poseidonios, famous for his geographical and geological studies, who was credited in constructing astronomical devices in Rhodes in the first century BCE.

Geminos worked with Poseidonios. He wrote Introduction to the Phenomena. His ideas on the 19-year Metonic calendar found a place in the inscriptions of the Antikythera Meteoroskopeion.

This was a bronze geared device measuring 32X22x5 centimeters. Its gear wheels were the size of coins and their triangular teeth, made from alloys of copper and tin, were about one millimeter long. The astronomical computer was like a small dictionary.

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Painting of the toothed geared interior of the Antikythera Mechanism by Evi Sarantea. Courtesy Evi Sarantea.

Predicting the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon

The beauty and genius of the Antikythera Tablet was its predictive powers and its accurate 19-year 235-months Metonic calendar, from the fifth century BCE Athenian astronomer, Meton.

The celestial computer predicted the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon, the position and phases of the Moon, and the positions in the sky of the Sun and the planets, major stars, and constellations. The computer could make predictions of natural phenomena that had taken place in the past or would take place in the future. Moreover, the predictions included the Olympics and other Panhellenic games and festivals.

The predictions of the Antikythera Meteoroskopeion united heavens and Earth, helping Greeks to understand the Cosmos and their role in that gigantic if perfect and beautiful and immortal universe. The stars, the Greeks believed, shaped their lives.

Of all predictions, those of the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon were the most important. The Sun and Moon determined the daily lives of all humans, giving them life, the measurement of time, day and night, months, and year. With the exception of astronomers, most Greeks feared the disappearance of the Sun and the Moon from the sky. Besides, these two stars, including all other stars, were thought of as gods. So, predicting when such disappearances / eclipses / bad omens would take place was the chief purpose of the Antikythera Meteoroskopeion.

A mechanical universe

Those predictions were accurate because the bronze toothed gears did math and reproduced the workings of the universe. For example, two toothed gear wheels with different axles, one over the other, and connected by a pin-and-slot mechanism, reproduced the elliptical trajectory of the Moon around the Earth, with the Moon moving faster when close to the Earth and slower when far away from the Earth. The gear wheels did the same thing. The lower one moved at a steady speed while the upper one, governed by the pin-and-slot mechanism, went faster and slower imitating the motion of the Moon around the Earth.

This understanding of astronomy found a perfect translation into a mechanical Cosmos in the Antikythera astronomical devise of gears from the Greeks.

Freedom of thought

This admirable display of genius was about 2,000 years ahead of its time. It captured the prevailing freedom of thought in the mythical, scientific, philosophical, and political culture of the Greeks. This tradition spilled over from the Greek city-states to the Greek kingdoms that emerged after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. In fact, democratic traditions remained alive among the Greeks in all of their history, even when Greece lost its political independence.

Democracy was ingrained in both cosmology and politics. The seventh century BCE cosmologist and natural philosopher, Anaximander, added equality and justice to the natural phenomena, so the Cosmos would be in harmony. In late sixth century BCE, Athens consolidated its democracy, becoming the model for the rest of Hellas.

The Antikythera Mechanism was a Parthenon-like treasure of that great scientific and democratic tradition.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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