The inner workings of the Antikythera mechanism [splendid animation]
August 23, 2009 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Even more about the Antikythera mechanism.

(Previously here and more from there.)
posted by Substrata (78 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
Awesome link...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:08 PM on August 23, 2009


That thing is a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus of a contraption. I love it. Thanks for the vid.
posted by SeanMac at 1:10 PM on August 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


How did we lose this technology? Why was there only one? All the time lost to the world, and where would we be today?
posted by MrLint at 1:16 PM on August 23, 2009


Whoa - the front dial even looks like it's showing the retrograde motions of planets. Very nice!

I imagine it's going to show up on the cover of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog before too much longer.

"This is the ancient device for calculating eclipses, planetary motions, the metonic cycle and more..."
posted by jquinby at 1:25 PM on August 23, 2009


Cool machine and cool exposition of it explaining how it works!
posted by Cranberry at 1:32 PM on August 23, 2009


Screw contrafactual histories where Babbage got the Analytical Engine together and working, let's suppose this sort of thing had taken off. When people ask what I do for a living, I could say that I'm a computer doric.

Oh, did I just invent Greekpunk?
posted by adipocere at 1:35 PM on August 23, 2009 [33 favorites]


Someone needs to make this out of Lego.
posted by doctor_negative at 1:36 PM on August 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


If we never lost it, what would it have done for us? I mean don't get me wrong, I am a big league technophile, but it's kind of like some of the cooler steampunk stuff. Yes, it's cool, but if you want to criticize it, all you have to do is ask what it's good for (besides being cool).

Here's something they were doing 700 years ago. But if you look at the progress of technology from 1350 to 1550 you probably won't be that impressed.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:39 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


How did we lose this technology?
the romans burned down the library at alexandria...possibly the greatest FAIL in all of human history

If we never lost it, what would it have done for us? I mean don't get me wrong, I am a big league technophile, but it's kind of like some of the cooler steampunk stuff.Yes, it's cool, but if you want to criticize it, all you have to do is ask what it's good for (besides being cool).

funny you should mention steam...around the time they burned it down, one of the things being studied at the library were rudimentary steam engines (basically a hollow metal ball on an axle with L-shaped pipes sticking out of it...put water in it and a fire underneath and it starts to spin)...it's quite likely that, out of the groundwork laid by these two inventions, the industrial revolution could have started 1000 years earlier, instead of, say, 1000 years of dark ages. the only ingredient missing was the laws of motion (newton, kepler, etc) but the only thing stopping the greeks from developing that was a lack of precise timekeeping (they more than had the geometry)...maybe if they had some sort of mechanism for...oh...wait
posted by sexyrobot at 2:03 PM on August 23, 2009 [17 favorites]


Epicycles, blergh.

On the one hand I think that the Greeks' insistence that the universe was "perfect" may have set mathematics and science back a thousand years. On the other hand, I wonder what the Earth would look like now if a culture like theirs had maintained its isolation and independence for more than a couple hundred years.
posted by napkin at 2:05 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why was this not common? Well, consider that the sharing of knowledge is a recent thing, a product of the scientific revolution, I'd argue. During antiquity and the middle ages, specialized knowledge was largely hoarded.
posted by absalom at 2:11 PM on August 23, 2009


The planets do have 'apparent' epicycles. That was what it was modelling.

Is there an interactive flash version of the mechanism?
posted by empath at 2:12 PM on August 23, 2009


Also, I like the idea of greekpunk, starring Archimedes and his amazing contraptions (greek fire, time pieces, steam engines, death rays, etc)
posted by empath at 2:14 PM on August 23, 2009


...all you have to do is ask what it's good for (besides being cool).

Precisely. Someone's gonna say, "it helped farmers know when to plant their crops," but farmers pretty much had the seasons down by that time. My guess is that this thing never saved a life, cured an illness, won a battle, or made anybody a single dinero in profit. All it could do was predict which celestial object would be where and when -- complex knowledge that, in light of that era's needs, was about as useless as knowledge could get. For that matter, location of celestial objects is in our own time, pretty much as useless as train-spotting. If all of the ingenuity that went into building this little doo-dad had instead been exercised on other then-technologically feasible pursuits like observing and taking notes on earthly biology, nature, anatomy, figuring out the experimental method of establishing agreed-upon facts, grinding glass and making microscopes, etc., imagine what prodigies of achievement they'd have to boast of today. For that matter, even if they'd learned to do some other practical things with wheels, like inventing wheelchairs, wheelbarrows, putting wheels on trunks (like we see in airports today), hand trucks. Instead, they sought significance in the heavens -- big mistake. The stars and planets have been the great red herrings in the human quest for knowledge. Ask the well-known astrologer Sir Isaac Newton. And unlike other red herrings, like alchemy, astrology and the study of the heavens never gave birth to practical science like chemistry. Studying the stars just leads to more knowledge about the stars -- it satisfies our curiosity, but contributes little else to the well-being of humanity. Too bad the guys who created this ingenious toy couldn't find something better to do with their minds and hands.
posted by Faze at 2:17 PM on August 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


Oh, did I just invent Greekpunk?

Sorry, adipocere, but my friend Aristeides and I were going to Queers shows back in like '96, so we've got a good decade on you here.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:19 PM on August 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


How did we lose this technology? Why was there only one? All the time lost to the world, and where would we be today?

Well, we only found one. Likely other ones were trashed for metal components. One interesting thing is we know a lot about ancient Greece due to drawings on clay pots. But later they switched to gold pots, and those gold pots all got recycled - so we have no idea what was on 'em.

We have the Archimedes Palimpset which is prayer study book that happened to be written on pages that someone had erased the work of Archimedes on to write bible verses. But you can still kind of make out the original stuff (with the help of modern technology)

A lot of stuff was lost. It's likely (I think) that tons of things were written down on impermanent types of material, like leaves or who knows what.
posted by delmoi at 2:26 PM on August 23, 2009


Faze: that's pretty crazy. It's obvious that pure curiosity about the universe is the main driver of scientific knowledge. Maybe they didn't invent the scientific method at the time, but tons and tons of mathematics advancements came out of that time period -- stuff that could be used in commerce and other types of engineering as well.

Also, they had know way of knowing what intellectual pursuits would gain fruit or not. Perhaps all the billions of dollars we're spending on high energy particle and quantum physics will never get anything more useful then we have now. Should we just give up because we can't see the clear payout? Why are we spending all this time researching the evolutionary history of whales and whatnot. How is constructing historical evolutionary trees even useful? Do you know off the top of your head?
posted by delmoi at 2:32 PM on August 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


I would like to be on the forefront of the Greekpunk wave. Newsletter, subscription, etc.
posted by The otter lady at 2:38 PM on August 23, 2009


I could tell that was a Faze post long before I reached the end. I must say, you never fail to bring a smile to my lips.

In reply, all I shall say is, even assuming that you see no utility in expanding a basic understanding of the universe in which we live, and even if you cannot imagine or conceive any eventual practical application from, let's say, discovering and analyzing the nature of planets circling other stars, or even identifying the mineral and water content of bodies within our own solar system, the study of astronomy led DIRECTLY to the development and use of CCDs, which made possible the digital cameras whose use you possibly now enjoy.

A minor frippery, you might argue? Perhaps, although digital cameras are quietly and permanently altering the way in which people share and transmit visual information to each other. And possibly you have no use for the massive advances in optics that were driven by astronomy.

Well, in that case, how about this -- Kepler's laws of planetary motion, discovered pretty much because Tycho Brahe was uselessly following the motions of the celestial bodies in exactly the manner you are so saddened by, led in a fairly direct line to Newton's eventual work on calculus, universal gravitation, and the laws of motion. And if you think there has been no practical application for THOSE, well, all of modern engineering, and most other technologies you use with happy abandon, would beg to differ.
posted by kyrademon at 2:38 PM on August 23, 2009 [36 favorites]


The inability to see the value in rudimentary clockwork perhaps having been invented some 1000-1500 years before it became common knowledge and the projected possible history that could have developed if the technology had spread is a willful blindness, I would say.
posted by hippybear at 2:41 PM on August 23, 2009 [11 favorites]


complex knowledge that, in light of that era's needs, was about as useless as knowledge could get

Astronomy and astrology weren't two separate disciplines until relatively late in history. For millenia, the drive for better astronomical information was largely driven by the desire for better astrological projections.
posted by Slothrup at 2:44 PM on August 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Would Newton have been able to have discovered the laws of motion and gravity without any astronomical observations?
posted by empath at 2:50 PM on August 23, 2009


Damn, you guys are quick. After seeing the headline I just came here to the comments to invent Greekpunk, myself.

Oh well :D
posted by jfrancis at 2:53 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


sexyrobot, someone -- I believe it was Carl Sagan -- suggested that the original intellectual flowering of Greece never took root because of slavery. Slavery served as a reliable labor pool in antiquity, replenished by war and widespread sales and trading; men were worn out and replaced like so many moving parts. There was no motivation for the trade and development of labor-saving devices. The natural free citizens who spent their time in the development of scientific observations had no economic motivation to apply their patently useful discoveries, such as (for God's sake!) the steam engine.

In fact, there is an ancient Greek story -- I forget who told it, or who it was about -- of a king who was approached by a engineer, who had invented a marvelous labor-saving drill that would do the work of ten men in a mine. The king listened with great interest -- but instead of buying the engineer's device, he ordered the device destroyed, and the engineer imprisoned. "If this thing will do the work of ten men," said the king, "then what will those ten men do?"
posted by Countess Elena at 2:55 PM on August 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'd also like to point out that modern astronomy is basically a testing-bed for ultra-high energy nuclear physics and other exotic happenings. We can't exactly build a 9-solar mass fusion reactor here on Earth, but we can study them in detail quite often.

This has been another edition of "Drown the troll with facts". Thank you.
posted by Avenger at 2:55 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


what

Okay, I knew about aeolipyles and gimbals and all that but this is an order of magnitude beyond those. How the heck is it that the Hellenes and Romans didn't at least have the 19th century horse-drawn version of the combine harvester? Is it just that all of the people who knew how to build this stuff were either priests or aristocrats? I guess they wouldn't have had the horse collar yet or mass-produced iron and steel, but...

This makes me wonder which inventions we already have now that possess vastly more potential than our 21st-century understanding or infrastructure can take advantage of.
posted by XMLicious at 2:57 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Aw, come on, Faze... how about ships? In order to accurately measure your lat & long on the open ocean, you need 1: an accurate piece of clockwork, and 2: astronomical data. This thing has both. What if human beings had been able to determine their exact location on the terraqueous globe a couple thousand years before John Harrison?
posted by synaesthetichaze at 2:57 PM on August 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


(By the way, Faze, I rather admire your relentless and epic campaign to assault everyone's preconceived notions about everything, even if in doing so you must of necessity often discard logic, common sense, and even good taste. The persona you have created on Metafilter, whether your actual opinions or a form of extended performance art, is, like the non-Socrates characters in a Platonic dialogue, a kind of apotheosis of trolling. Applause.)
posted by kyrademon at 2:59 PM on August 23, 2009 [11 favorites]


Yes, it's cool, but if you want to criticize it, all you have to do is ask what it's good for (besides being cool).

You could hide your weed in it!
posted by Meatbomb at 2:59 PM on August 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


To me, it doesn't look like such a long path from:

1) 3D model of mechanism, with interconnections and gearing ratios already figured out
...fed in to...
2) Some sort of computer-controlled laser cutting / milling machine
...the parts from which got to...
3) Hungry engineering grad students
...who, in return for pizza and caffeine, assemble your...
4) Working Antikythera mechanism.

Heck, if I can find the parts list that got fed into that animation I might have a crack at it myself.
posted by metaBugs at 3:02 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nthing Kyrademon's remarks and adding that we have had some major philosophical paradigms shifts as well that humanity still struggles to accept. Sigh.
posted by effluvia at 3:04 PM on August 23, 2009


The stars and planets have been the great red herrings in the human quest for knowledge. Ask the well-known astrologer Sir Isaac Newton.

Did you really mean to cite the guy who used the motions of the planets to develop the basic laws of mechanics that have dominated Physics for over 300 years as an example of astronomy being useless?
posted by dirigibleman at 3:05 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I might also add that the burning of the Library of Alexandria serves more as a metaphor for the loss of classical knowledge than the cause of it. The library burned at least three times, and it was hardly the only collection of knowledge of the ancient world (just the greatest). But it is the single easiest thing to get upset about -- particularly the Christian and Muslim burnings, both intended to destroy all heresies.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:07 PM on August 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


Did no-one see this sentence in Faze's rant?

The stars and planets have been the great red herrings in the human quest for knowledge. Ask the well-known astrologer Sir Isaac Newton.

He's obviously not serious.
posted by Justinian at 3:12 PM on August 23, 2009


I'd rather have a copy of this hanging on the wall than a barometer!
posted by thecjm at 3:22 PM on August 23, 2009


Okay, but when does this thing say the world's going to end?

And when does it say that movie will be released?
posted by Sys Rq at 3:29 PM on August 23, 2009


I imagine it's going to show up on the cover of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog before too much longer.

The Retrograde-Planetary-Motion, Orbital Position, Equinox-Predicting CalculatorTM
posted by odinsdream at 3:38 PM on August 23, 2009


Oh, did I just invent Greekpunk?

It's called Hellenepunk and I will crush you under my hordes of Talos-Men to prove it!
posted by The Whelk at 3:58 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]



The Retrograde-Planetary-Motion, Orbital Position, Equinox-Predicting CalculatorTM


With iPod dock and personal air ionizer!
posted by The Whelk at 3:58 PM on August 23, 2009


Too bad the guys who created this ingenious toy couldn't find something better to do with their minds and hands.
posted by Faze at 2:17 PM on August 23 [2 favorites +] [!]


That settles it. I'm not showing Faze the new farting iPhone application I'm working on.
posted by digsrus at 3:59 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]



...all you have to do is ask what it's good for (besides being cool).
Predicting eclipses kept peasants in line/society stable
posted by Iron Rat at 4:05 PM on August 23, 2009


In fact, there is an ancient Greek story -- I forget who told it, or who it was about -- of a king who was approached by a engineer, who had invented a marvelous labor-saving drill that would do the work of ten men in a mine. The king listened with great interest -- but instead of buying the engineer's device, he ordered the device destroyed, and the engineer imprisoned. "If this thing will do the work of ten men," said the king, "then what will those ten men do?"

Which is pretty much the accepted story of why Greece never got around to using their marvelous steam toys. Any Alt History would have to overcome that and some of the ancient Greek prejudices against physical labor and actual experimentation rather than just abstracting from pure math.

Like say there was a plauge and Alexander Of Macedonia went into industry rather than conquest-

wait a second *grabs notebook, calls publisher*
posted by The Whelk at 4:08 PM on August 23, 2009


sexyrobot: "How did we lose this technology?
the romans burned down the library at alexandria
"

To be more precise, while Julius Caesar may have burned down a portion of the Alexandria library (according to Plutarch), it definitely continued its research and depository functions for the next few centuries (despite the later, larger sack by the Emperor Aurelian during his reunification of the Roman Empire after the Third Century schisms). Its definitive end seems to have come when a Christian mob, incited by the rather bigoted bishop/pope Theophilus, destroyed it during a general pogrom against "paganism" which also included the public torture and execution of philosophers and officials identified with neoplatonism. This aggressive shift in Christian politics occurred as part of a power struggle within Christianity between the east/west factions, and more focally between the Greeks and the Coptics. Many of the surviving works in the Alexandria library were in fact transferred to the Library of Constantinople, which suffered from several fires over the next millenium before being itself intentionally destroyed by the "Franks" (ie, the Western Europeans) during one of the later crusades that effectively ended the surviving Roman Empire as an influential political entity at the beginning of the 13th century.

I'd say the most significant loss for European science near end of the "dark ages" was the later 13th century Mongol destruction of Baghdad's House of Wisdom. This was one of the most active research institutes in Europe and the Middle East, beginning early when Baghdad and the Persian Sassanid/Caliphate absorbed many of the neoplatonist scholar refugees driven from the Roman Empire by an increasingly xenophobic and exclusionary Orthodox Christianity (the pre-Muslim Persian Empire had in fact absorbed the Greek philosophers purged by Justinian). The Baghdad library grew to encompass far more volumes than any previous or contemporaneous library in Europe and the Middle East, its expansion particularly accelerating after the Muslim victory at Talas against the forces of Tang China, when the secret of Chinese paper making was appropriated and made less expensive, substituting linen for mulberry in the production process.

During the "dark ages" Islamic science was churning out increasingly sophisticated and semi-mass produced astrolabes and other mechanical timekeeping and navigation contraptions. It's probable that within the medieval libraries there were explanations and diagrams for older and contemporary mechanisms, and possibly for unbuilt, anticipated designs. Unfortunately, because of the destruction of the two largest medieval libraries during the 13th century, most of this has been lost. Think of how relatively rare engineering textbooks are in our world compared to the surfeit of fiction, biography, history and religious texts. Engineering stuff simply gets copied and reproduced several orders of magnitude less frewuently. Now imagine a world where the reproduction of knowledge in written form is tens of thousands of time more expensive in economic terms. It's easy to see how the corpus of which epistemes would survive centuries of mishaps would become skewed towards certain topics while completely omitting others.
posted by meehawl at 4:23 PM on August 23, 2009 [70 favorites]


In order to accurately measure your lat & long on the open ocean, you need 1: an accurate piece of clockwork, and 2: astronomical data. This thing has both.

Except it doesn't run itself. It does have gears, and therefore qualfies as "clockwork", but it isn't a clock.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:13 PM on August 23, 2009


ArgentCorvid, true dat, but it's a helle lot closer than the world got for another 1600 years or so.

Longitudinal navigation was The Advancement that opened the world up to real exploration, and made us a connected planet, instead of pockets & islands of humanity. Granted, we're still hashing out the complications of being able to reach out and touch/slap/obliterate someone halfway around the globe... but that's another issue altogether.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:33 PM on August 23, 2009


In fact, there is an ancient Greek story -- I forget who told it, or who it was about -- of a king who was approached by a engineer, who had invented a marvelous labor-saving drill that would do the work of ten men in a mine. The king listened with great interest -- but instead of buying the engineer's device, he ordered the device destroyed, and the engineer imprisoned. "If this thing will do the work of ten men," said the king, "then what will those ten men do?"

Roman. Tiberius. Unbreakable glass. Pliny.

The computerization was fun, but the real question is, does anyone make these things? Or does our current decline of the super-rich make it a non-paying proposition?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:36 PM on August 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Clock of the Long Now seems like an equivalent thoroughly-funded modern project, though the focus is more time measurement itself rather than extrapolating astronomy from it.
posted by XMLicious at 5:45 PM on August 23, 2009


IAmBroom: "a helle lot closer"

I see what you did there
posted by mwhybark at 5:55 PM on August 23, 2009


How the heck is it that the Hellenes and Romans didn't at least have the 19th century horse-drawn version of the combine harvester?

For the same reason the Mayans didn't invent wheeled transport of any kind, even though they understood the principle of the wheel--there were easier, cheaper ways to do that stuff (slaves, in both cases).
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:10 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


IndigoJones, thanks! I knew it would bother me that I couldn't recall who recounted the story, or where it was said to have happened. I wonder, though, if there wasn't an earlier variant of the story that I was thinking of, in which the king, or pharaoh, or tyrant, specifically said that the device would put men out of work, rather than that the glass would cause the imperial currency to lose value.

(More embarrassingly, I may be thinking of a retelling by Terry Pratchett in one of his Discworld books, without realizing it. Pratchett had a lot of fun with historical engineering.)
posted by Countess Elena at 6:17 PM on August 23, 2009


Sidhedevil there were easier, cheaper ways to do that stuff (slaves, in both cases).

The argument against that is so easy though. Previously we had a mine, and ten slaves to work it. Now we have a machine, and two slaves to work the machine, and we still have eight slaves. What else can we get our eight slaves to do?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:24 PM on August 23, 2009


Ask the well-known astrologer Sir Isaac Newton.

He's obviously not serious.


This is not a joke, by the way.
posted by Wolof at 6:53 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure how much people ran with Hero's engine, but there was tons of clockwork gee-gaws throughout history. You see big lantern gears and the like (for things like treadmill cranes) but all the really cool stuff is essentially toys rather than turret mills. After a bit of poking around via Google, "Medieval Automaton" is the phrase that pays.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:07 PM on August 23, 2009


Sure, Newton was an alchemist and astrologist. That's not what Faze was joking about; he was joking when said that Newton never amounted to anything.
posted by Justinian at 7:23 PM on August 23, 2009


Re: Greekpunk or Hellenepunk -

Check out Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters a sort of alternate-science novel that is set in a universe where the ancient Greek (and to some extent, the ancient Chinese) philosophers just happened to be right about most everything. It's set about a thousand years after Alexander the Great, and features at its center a trip to retrieve part of the sun. I read it a long time ago, but I recall that the novelty of the universe and setting overcame any other weaknesses (at least for me).
posted by ErWenn at 7:26 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have to agree with Faze that this is pretty much useless. I mean, yes, it's accurate, and yes, the precociously daedal clockwork it employs is a wonder to behold, but how exactly am I supposed to construct one out of the twigs and mud of my prison cell in order to impress the ancients with my ability to "darken the sun" at my choosing?
posted by Rhaomi at 7:37 PM on August 23, 2009


I'll bet this was a secret weapon, enabling Greek generals to figure out the auspices for battle, or something like that. It's a distillation of all kinds of knowledge so you wouldn't have to listen to the creaky voices of the astrologers. All you had to do is find the next time Jupiter and Mars were conjuct, trine to Mercury, by twiddling the setting knob, then -blammo- you were guaranteed to beat the Spartans or whatever.
posted by jet_silver at 7:46 PM on August 23, 2009


someone -- I believe it was Carl Sagan -- suggested that the original intellectual flowering of Greece never took root because of slavery.

I have this notion that James Burke said it. Whoever it was, I'm sure they were on PBS and wearing a leisure suit.
posted by gimonca at 7:57 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


someone -- I believe it was Carl Sagan -- suggested that the original intellectual flowering of Greece never took root because of slavery.
You're thinking of The Demon Haunted World:
But in a society in which manual labor is demeaned and thought fit only for slaves, as in the classical Graeco-Roman world, the experimental method does not thrive. Science requires us to be freed of gross superstition and gross injustice both.
posted by deanc at 8:04 PM on August 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


The division between astrology and astronomy, like that between alchemy and chemistry, was still fuzzy in Isaac Newton's time, and there was no distinction at all for the Ancient Greeks. Lots of actual sciences grow out of, and through, pseudosciences and mysticism. Whatever this mechanism was actually used for, it was definitely an astrological/astronomical device.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:33 PM on August 23, 2009


I'm guessing Faze plays Civ. A LOT.
posted by flotson at 9:56 PM on August 23, 2009


So when can I expect to see the plans for a papyruscraft papercraft version?
posted by Avelwood at 9:57 PM on August 23, 2009


Well, I think Faze has a bit of a point. First, I can't believe for a minute that this was the only such mechanism ever invented in that age. I imagine the others were lost. Maybe they were made of wood, or maybe their metal was recycled. So casting a sacred halo on this object is a bit much. It wasn't in a position to change the world. It was lost, but so were others like it: a whole class of knowledge and engineering was lost. It was part of a greater cycle of human civilization. The libraries were just another example that happened in another era of destruction. The importance of the libraries provides another view. They were surely used as research libraries are today -- but they were also social hubs where original texts were copied and circulated. What was lost was not just the physical objects in the library, but the purpose and meaning of those objects. And that brings us to the palimpsest.

So this happens. We need to ask why it happens. Obviously, society reached a period -- or several -- where mechanisms like this, or papers like that, were superfluous. I think this points to the analogy created by Niven and Pournelle in A Mote in God's Eye, in which [HURF DURF SPOILERS] an alien race has ravaged its solar system of all resources, and collapsed and reborn multiple times millennia apart. The solution was libraries of Motie knowledge, kept under lock and key until such time as ... they were looted for the next rebirth. Humans didn't get this, in the story universe, because they were blind to their own cycles of collapse and rebirth. They had written a self-narrative of continual growth and advancement. Similarly, this notion of advancement of human knowledge may not have been part and parcel of the medieval mindset. The idea of saving an odd-looking jumble of gears just in case it might prove useful to science of the future probably wasn't a priority or a widely held view. (I don't find that view prevalent today, for instance.) As always, a few might have kept individual flames alive, but many candles would have simply burnt out, untended, and in the greater scheme of things it's not clear how much this mattered.

To have a mechanism prove useful, it would have required a social framework wherein there were experts to understand it, innovators to create something from it, and a social need for what they created: the "ten men" story. Stuff like this, with no obvious purpose and a lost social framework, just vanished in the long tail of history.
posted by dhartung at 10:30 PM on August 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


The argument against that is so easy though.

It's an easy argument ex post facto, but there are lots of examples throughout history of technologies not being adopted until societies saw a need for them.

The fax machine was invented in the 19th century, for example. You could send faxes over the telegraph wires. But nobody much did it, because there wasn't a need for it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:52 PM on August 23, 2009


Well, in all fairness, the mechanism basically WAS lost. It was an amorphous blob of encrusted metal found in a shipwreck which sat around for nearly a century before anyone even began to figure out what it did. That it has been figured out as completely as it has been is a marvel of modern investigative techniques and human intuition. Who knows what else has been recovered and lost or dismissed?
posted by hippybear at 11:54 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


A thing like the Antikythera mechanism can not exist alone. The mechanism contains 80+ precision made metal gears. What kind of tools, what kind of workshop would you need to make those gears? And once you have those tools, and the mechanical and intellectual thinking behind them, what else can you make? What else did the Greeks make that we have not yet discovered? Those tools - and the technical skill behind them - did not evolve just to make one copy of the Antikythera mechanism.

The mechanism is fascinating, but the real fascination begins when you start thinking that the mechanism is just a small piece of a larger whole. Behind the mechanism is a whole framework of knowledge, from engineering to astronomy.
posted by Termite at 11:57 PM on August 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


Once the discs are created, the gears could be formed by hand with simple file tools, a steady hand, and a lot of patience. Nearly everything, prior to Ford, was a one-off construction project. Even a lot of the guns used in the civil war did not have interchangeable parts, having been made individually by gunsmiths.

I agree, that there is knowledge there which was obviously submerged for centuries. But the device itself could easily have been the product of a mad scientist tinkering in his lab for hours upon hours.
posted by hippybear at 12:14 AM on August 24, 2009


Faze, you might want to pick up Hogben's Mathematics for the Million; IIRC, his history of mathematics starts with farmers and astrologists.
posted by orthogonality at 12:39 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


To have a mechanism prove useful, it would have required a social framework wherein there were experts to understand it, innovators to create something from it, and a social need for what they created

well...one of the earliest (ca. 17th cent) uses for (mechanical, geared) machines was in making things beautiful (and there's always a demand for beautiful things)...i'm talking about engine turning, or Guilloché. you see it a lot on faberge' eggs. (well, if you see a lot of faberge' eggs, anyway)...it was devices like these and early watches that created the demand for newton's laws...without them these things tended to jam and not work right, being constructed less from first principles and more from 'rule-of-thumb'
posted by sexyrobot at 12:46 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think a lot of many ancient Greeks, but to suggest that they would have directly moved humanity ahead by centuries, had it not been for the Romans, or the Turks, or whoever, is a leap of intellectual faith that I'm not willing to make. After all, we know that the Greeks were often a proud and even vain people, and that they held on to some truly dopey notions in the face of considerable evidence all around them to the contrary. Consider that Aristotle believed that women had a different number of teeth than men, and couldn't be bothered to walk over to the nearest young healthy woman, and simply have her open her mouth so that he could check that assumption, and you begin to question whether they really, as a civilization, had the handle on the physical world we too often credit them for having, on the basis of some elegant ruins and fragments of writings we'd like to believe indicate more than they really may.

For all they thought and wrote and did, the ancient Greeks didn't come up with the scientific method, and nothing in what they've left suggests that they would have, if left to their own devices. It took, I think, the Dark Ages, and the hate of ignorance those awful times bred in later peoples, to force that development. You can argue that it may not have taken the development of the scientific method for humanity to succeed in producing round after round of technological progress, but I think that a culture willing to entertain a quasi-mystical explanation for even such easily observed facts as the number of teeth in a woman's head, could have gone in a completely different direction than what we later mortals have.
posted by paulsc at 1:37 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder, though, if there wasn't an earlier variant of the story that I was thinking of, in which the king, or pharaoh, or tyrant, specifically said that the device would put men out of work, rather than that the glass would cause the imperial currency to lose value.

There may well be and I would love to hear of it. This was simply the parallel that lept to my mind from reading your comment. (My own memory, cleary wrong, was that the justification was potential joblessness rather than queering the value of currency. Then again, there had been a currency crisis in Tiberius' reign (33 AD), so clearly he had money on the brain.)

Consider that Aristotle believed that women had a different number of teeth than men, and couldn't be bothered to walk over to the nearest young healthy woman, and simply have her open her mouth so that he could check that assumption

I've always wondered if perhaps he had done so, say with a family member, and happened upon a fluke with fewer than standard number of teeth. Thin hope, I realize, but I tend to be unhealthily contrarian. As to Greek vanity and foolishness, well, I would hate to think what people will say of us in two millenia from now.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:52 AM on August 24, 2009


Previously we had a mine, and ten slaves to work it. Now we have a machine, and two slaves to work the machine, and we still have eight slaves. What else can we get our eight slaves to do?

Ah, but once you teach those two slaves to do something specialized like operate this machine, they become much more difficult to replace, and then they have (limited) power over the slaveowners. If the slaveowner teaches specialized tasks to all or most of his slaves, they could theoretically band together and refuse to work until the slaveowner starts paying them. He can't easily get new slaves and train them all, so the power dynamic has changed.

Not that this much forethought necessarily went into the decision at the time, but people were probably pretty wary about teaching their slaves too much.
posted by echo target at 8:09 AM on August 24, 2009


So this happens. We need to ask why it happens. Obviously, society reached a period -- or several -- where mechanisms like this, or papers like that, were superfluous.

It wasn't so much that the papers were considered superfluous as the fact that parchment to write on was so expensive that it was worth your while to scrape off the writing and reuse it. It's worth your while to save something because it might be useful later as long as the underlying parts aren't so valuable that you would want to cannibalize them for something else.

Similarly with ancient buildings: one of the reasons ancient sites are in such disrepair is because once the buildings/sites themselves were no longer useful to the public, walls, columns, bricks, and metal fastenings were cannibalized for other buildings. Preservation is, in a sense, a luxury only available to those societies with enough abundance to find new raw materials for modern projects rather than reusing the raw materials from old ones.

I also get the idea that there wasn't much of a concept that older ideas and mechanisms could be applied to modern problems. The big nuts to crack were issues of long-distance sea navigation and the ability to harness explosives for the purpose of hurling projectiles. I really don't know why you didn't have a bunch of Arab, Byzantine, and Frankish nobles reading in Herodotus about how the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa without thinking to themselves, "we should totally do that!" I always assumed that part of the problem was that there simply wasn't a large enough economic surplus around to start spending money on speculative ideas. When your overland and mediterranean trade routes work well enough, there's not much of an incentive to spend what little money you have left on ocean navigation. When you have watermills available and a ton of cheap labor available to be done by serfs, you're not going to regard any rudimentary ideas like steam power or sterling engines as anything other than toys rather than blowing your castle defense budget on metallurgy research for steam engines. And even if you're rich and dominant -- like the Ottomans and Chinese were -- your priorities are going to be more about preserving your wealth and looking for rent-seeking opportunities rather than figuring out how to stay 2 steps ahead of your distant rivals.
posted by deanc at 8:22 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Upthread: Epicycles, blergh. By napkin, but really I'm about to rant at the widespread attitude that that represents, and not at napkin personally.

Or, as Jack Handey put it: We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can't scoff at them personally, to their faces, and this is what annoys me.

No, really. How many people here can actually describe some real object's orbit in terms of its ellipse, at a moment's notice? If you can, you're allowed to sniff at epicycles just as readily (though it would be best if you'd then explain where, and for what purposes, the epicyclic model of that object fails). If you can't, congratulations on not only knowing the name of an approximate model of part of the universe, but also knowing that there's a newer approximate model of that same part of the universe. Considering that the newer approximate model is very nearly four centuries old, this may not give you the "hip, up-to-date" sort of credibility we so prize around here.

Not even if we also give you credit for knowing that the newer model is generally considered* to get more predictive power per postulate than the one before, which I presume everyone does who knows what an epicycle is.

Or does anyone want to tell me that we now have, not an approximate model, but the Truth—all there is to know about orbital motion, under any conditions, anywhere and ever? Nonsense. Four centuries from now, people on the Marsnet or the Sub-Etha Network or the ansible or whatever are going to be spitting out witticisms like "Relativistic frame-dragging, blergh," or "Lithium-ion batteries, blergh," or "DNA-only bioinformatics, blergh," or "quark/gluon theory, blergh."

Why? Because they will know the names of our approximate models of those parts of the universe, and they will know that there are newer approximate models of those same parts of the universe, with more predictive power per postulate, as generally construed,* and they too will mostly leave it at that, without considering what difference the newer models make to them personally, and without reflecting that on a level playing field Ptolemy could whip their intellectual butts in a hot second. In other words, they too will assume that their present moment occupies some sort of privileged position in the history of human knowledge. It won't, says the evidence of the ages—and neither does ours. So let's grow a little epistemological humility, and stop already with the Nelson Muntz "HA-ha" at people who lived before us and believed something else.

Again, napkin, sorry for singling you out. You just happen to be this thread's avatar of present-ism. I'll rant at someone else next time.

*I include this qualification, because counting postulates is thus far a thoroughly impressionistic business: You can't really set down a number for how many assumptions a theory has. And if another theory seems to have fewer, does it really? Or are its assumptions just more congenial to our cultural biases, and more insidiously our cognitive biases? What makes 'one ellipse' a simpler assumption than 'two circles'? Our theory of forces? Great, now we've assumed a quantity called 'force' that's conserved (i.e., behaves like it's real) even though it isn't directly observable (only indirectly, through varying masses and accelerations), and that just happens to lay paths out in the neat geometries we can see directly already! We say that's simpler; an intelligent ancient Greek might well disagree, and 'the universe has to be perfect' needn't enter into it. We say, "But everyone agrees that this theory is simpler," but we only get away with it because we haven't yet heard anyone sniff, "Simpler for hew-mons!"
posted by eritain at 10:15 PM on August 24, 2009 [36 favorites]


don't forget to download the high-res .avi version of the splendid animation here. (50 mb).
posted by Substrata at 2:31 PM on August 25, 2009


Aristotle believed that women had a different number of teeth than men

Have you ever, personally, counted the number of teeth? Why not?

I'm sure it was a piece of received wisdom that he got that he didn't bother to check because he had assumed that somebody else already had.
posted by empath at 4:14 PM on August 25, 2009


Also, it's not exactly easy to count teeth without access to a skul, I don't think.
posted by empath at 4:15 PM on August 25, 2009


deanc: "I really don't know why you didn't have a bunch of Arab, Byzantine, and Frankish nobles reading in Herodotus about how the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa without thinking to themselves, "we should totally do that!" I always assumed that part of the problem was that there simply wasn't a large enough economic surplus around to start spending money on speculative ideas."

I think you're right. The Islamic economies jumpstarted a huge naval presence because they inherited and maintained the dockyards and naval bases of the former Roman and Persian Empires. However, the Arab mariners were very focussed on the bottom line and their commercial voyages took them as far as Korea and down the eastern coast of Africa about as far south as they could commercially go before the climate grew too hot to sustain large trading posts. They really had little interest in venturing further than that. In fact, because their navigational charts were based on Pole Star/Sun height reckoning with "departures" marked as right-angled time courses, getting into a zone where Polaris became difficult to use and the Sun was increasingly vertical would have been deeply upsetting to most Islamic navigators. And because they generally eschewed coastline-based maps (their cartographers considered the European fascination with distance-based schematics amusingly primitive and error-prone). It's pretty obvious from the rapid progress that Portuguese mariners made across the Indian Ocean once they rounded Africa that they were in possession of a great deal of excellent navigation/wind/tide information and charts that seem to have been lost over time.

The History of Cartography is an excellent resource for exploring medieval seafaring, including the Chinese expeditions to Africa. There's a specific Islamic cartography section. Apologies is the links are not precise but Google Books is confusing me here. Ibn Majid was a big late medieval cartographer who did produce pictorial representations of the coastlines from Africa to Indonesia.
posted by meehawl at 6:51 PM on August 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


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