Friday, December 5, 2014

Dating the Antikythera Mechanism

The so-called Antikythera Mechanism, a device originally composed of a complex series of bronze gears, was discovered in 1901 off the coast of Antikythera, an island in the Aegean Sea. According to experts who have examined the device, it appears to have been used to determine the position of the sun, moon, and planets at specific times. In effect, it was the first known mechanical astrological calendar.

Researchers have now determined that based on its settings, the device could be as much as a hundred years older than previously thought. This is significant because precise dating of the device could help determine the mathematical principles that went into its construction.

A 2006 study dated the device to 150-100 B.C. But a new analysis of the mechanism's eclipse-tracking dial by scientists at the University of Puget Sound in Washington and the National University of Quilmes in Argentina indicates that the device's built-in calendar likely began at 205 B.C.

This suggests that the Antikythera Mechanism must be at least 50 to 100 years older than previously thought. If that's the case, the researchers say, the device could not have relied on trigonometry, which emerged during the 2nd century B.C. Instead, it was probably based on arithmetical principles the Greeks borrowed from the Babylonians.

For now, the mystery of who built the device remains unsolved. While some experts have linked the mechanism to legendary Greek thinkers like Archimedes and Hipparchus, the new study suggests it's too early to say for sure.

“We know so little about ancient Greek astronomy,” study co-author Dr. James Evans, a professor of physics at the University of Puget Sound, told The New York Times. “Only small fragments of work have survived. It’s probably safer not to try to hang it on any one particular famous person.”

Given the nature of astrology, it's also possible that these experts are wrong. For an astrologer, the device would be less useful if its starting date was the date on which it was built. Just like with a modern ephemeris, it would make more sense to have it start 50-100 years earlier so that it could be used to calculate birth charts for older adults. That amount of time is exactly the discrepancy found by these researchers.

As the research continues, I'm looking forward to hearing more about how the device works and how accurate it would have been over time. It just goes to show that ancient people were as smart as we are today, except that they were working from a more limited knowledge base.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble

No comments: