Antikythera Mechanism — in Las Vegas

A close-up of a colorful circle

Painting of the Meteoroskopeion (Antikythera Mechanism) by Dionysios Kriaris, a Greek mathematician living in Athens, Greece. The image shows the complex gears and the front Cosmos and the back spirals of the calendar and the predictive dial for the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon.

Prologue

We all like to have more money. Dollars and other currencies enable us to deal with each other rather peacefully, buying and trading necessities like food, housing, clothes, books, etc. So, gambling a dollar with the vain expectation of wining more than a dollar, is tempting. But like other hopeless habits, gambling, if unchecked, is corrupting with unforeseeable consequences.

In Las Vegas

On July 26, 2023, I went to Las Vegas to give a talk on the Antikythera Mechanism, the Greek computer of genius of the second century BCE. A friend drove me to the Ontario, California airport. I took the airplane in the morning and returned home in the evening. The airplane landed in Las Vegas airport at 9:00 AM. Walking the long corridors of the airport brought me face to face with gambling. Betting machines were nearly everywhere. I made the next discovery at the exit of the airport where I went to catch a shuttle bus for the Horseshoe Hotel where I would make my presentation. The temperature in the airport was uncomfortably cold. But opening the door for the road and the shuttle bus was like opening the door of a furnace. The temperature outside the hotel was definitely higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once at the Horseshoe Hotel, a gigantic building whose main corridor reminded me of the airport corridor decorated with gambling machines, I knew I was in a gambling city. In fact, Las Vegas thrives on gambling. That gambling fever ignores reality that, for instance, Las Vegas should not exist in order to tempt the worst instincts of people. Aside from this moral issue, Las Vegas is in the desert. Fighting nature is a hopeless task. Climate change is making life in the desert unpleasant and unbearable. Looking down at the communities near the airport from the descending airplane, I could see acres of homes without trees. How could these people, I kept saying to myself, survive? At least, trees reduce temperature slightly, absorb greenhouse gases and give us the life-gift of oxygen.

Meteoroskopeion: An astronomical computer of genius

I set these concerns aside and returned to ancient Greek history. I gave my talk at about 4:00 PM to a crowd of largely Greek Americans. I was pleased my presentation raised interesting questions in the minds of some people in the audience. I enjoyed the discussion and made a few friends.

My key message was that this ancient Greek technology of the astronomical computer has the seeds for a better future for us in the third decade of the twenty-first century. It opens the doors of thinking with science as our primary guide. The computer itself was a complex bronze toothed geared scientific technology for the democratization of knowledge and the beautiful and the good. That technology had brought together the ancient Greek achievements and traditions in mythology, astronomy, cosmology, mathematics, metallurgy, and engineering. Those traditions and the scientific knowledge underpinning them were connected to natural phenomena like the eclipses of the Sun god Helios and Helios’ sister goddess Selene, Moon. Moreover, the Antikythera computer mapped the positions of the major constellations, stars, and the planets. Altogether, the Antikythera Mechanism or Meteoroskopeion, united the heavens and Earth. This meant linking the cosmic phenomena to the Olympic games and other Panhellenic festivals and athletic competitions.

The Meteoroskopeion gave its users (farmers, astronomers, politicians) an accurate calendar and an equally accurate and reliable prediction of the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Like other stars, the Sun and the Moon were gods for the Greeks. But these brother-sister gods made life possible. The Sun god Helios brought light and life, and with his sister Selene (Moon), made possible time itself: day and night and the seasons and the year. So, the Greeks had to know when these important gods simply disappeared temporarily from the sky. Hence, the Meteoroskopeion.

What we see in this ancient laptop astronomical computer is broad knowledge that combined the sciences of the Cosmos (mathematics, astronomy, and Heliocentric cosmology) to the political and theological needs of predicting eclipses and Olympics. Thus, the ancient startup scientists were experts and polymaths. By this we tentatively mean interdisciplinary scientists. The world, how it works, was at their fingertips. One of them was Hipparchos who probably supervised the making of the Antikythera computer in his workshop in the Aegean island of Rhodes.

Hipparchos learned from Archimedes. Archimedes was the third century BCE genius in mathematics, mechanics, solar studies, optics, and engineering. He wrote a book, On Spheres, now lost, in which he discussed how to build a mechanical universe like the Antikythera computer. He also improved the gears invented by Ktesibios in Alexandria, Egypt in the third century BCE.

Alexandria was the capital of a Hellenic commonwealth of science and technology. It had a university-like school of advanced studies, Mouseion, and a great Library. The Greek kings of Egypt lavished these institutions with money and support. This explains the golden age of Greek science and technology that gave us the Meteoroskopeion of the second century BCE. Both Archimedes and Hipparchos, along with a galaxy of other scientists, benefited from the Mouseion and the Alexandrian Library.

The Meteoroskopeion could influence the building of new customer-friendly and enlightening laptop computers by modern polymaths versed in Greek science and technology and civilization. Their technical expertise must be engulphed by ideas of cosmology, astronomy, mathematics, and democratic political theory and Greek history. Merging these fields of knowledge may finally give birth to another golden age of science for technologies serving the public and ecological good.

Leaving gambling Las Vegas

I left my hotel around 5:30 in the afternoon. My taxi driver said to me the temperature hovered close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The dragon of climate change, the inferno-like temperature during my ride to the airport of Las Vegas was out in the open. Its message was ominous. Stop burning fossil fuels or I am going to make your lives miserable. I may even burn you up.

My talk at least offered a glimmer of hope, that working together and guided by science we can reverse the global storm of heat to human-friendly civilization the Greeks created so long time ago.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.