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Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets

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The bronze fragments of an ancient Greek device have puzzled scholars for more than a century after they were recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, where they had lain since about 80 BC. Now, using advanced imaging technology, scientists have solved the mystery of its intricate workings. Unmatched in complexity for a thousand years, the mechanism functioned a The bronze fragments of an ancient Greek device have puzzled scholars for more than a century after they were recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, where they had lain since about 80 BC. Now, using advanced imaging technology, scientists have solved the mystery of its intricate workings. Unmatched in complexity for a thousand years, the mechanism functioned as the world's first analog computer, calculating the movements of the sun, moon, and planets through the zodiac. In Decoding the Heavens, Jo Marchant details for the first time the hundred-year quest to decode this ancient computer. Along the way she unearths a diverse cast of remarkable characters--ranging from Archimedes to Jacques Cousteau--and explores the deep roots of modern technology, not only in ancient Greece, but in the Islamic world and medieval Europe. At its heart, this is an epic adventure story, a book that challenges our assumptions about technology development through the ages while giving us fresh insights into history itself.


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The bronze fragments of an ancient Greek device have puzzled scholars for more than a century after they were recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, where they had lain since about 80 BC. Now, using advanced imaging technology, scientists have solved the mystery of its intricate workings. Unmatched in complexity for a thousand years, the mechanism functioned a The bronze fragments of an ancient Greek device have puzzled scholars for more than a century after they were recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, where they had lain since about 80 BC. Now, using advanced imaging technology, scientists have solved the mystery of its intricate workings. Unmatched in complexity for a thousand years, the mechanism functioned as the world's first analog computer, calculating the movements of the sun, moon, and planets through the zodiac. In Decoding the Heavens, Jo Marchant details for the first time the hundred-year quest to decode this ancient computer. Along the way she unearths a diverse cast of remarkable characters--ranging from Archimedes to Jacques Cousteau--and explores the deep roots of modern technology, not only in ancient Greece, but in the Islamic world and medieval Europe. At its heart, this is an epic adventure story, a book that challenges our assumptions about technology development through the ages while giving us fresh insights into history itself.

30 review for Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets

  1. 4 out of 5

    Robin Rivers

    Jo Marchant reveals her ease with translating scientific speak into real-life adventure that drives readers of all kinds right to the very end of this fantastic book. Although it took me a while to get into it as a result of my own distraction, once there I found myself wrapped up in the same obsession with the Antikythera mechanism as ruled the lives of these men and women for generations. Marchant broke down complex realities and interwove the relationships of the scientists involved at every l Jo Marchant reveals her ease with translating scientific speak into real-life adventure that drives readers of all kinds right to the very end of this fantastic book. Although it took me a while to get into it as a result of my own distraction, once there I found myself wrapped up in the same obsession with the Antikythera mechanism as ruled the lives of these men and women for generations. Marchant broke down complex realities and interwove the relationships of the scientists involved at every level of revelation to help us all fall in love with this ancient mystery that still holds its own undiscovered origin and purpose. This may be one of the best non-fiction books on ancient mysteries I have come across. Ever.

  2. 4 out of 5

    jeremy

    decoding the heavens recounts the discovery of the antikythera mechanism, arguably the most remarkable archaeological find in human history. a mechanical computer dating from the second century bce, it was recovered from an ancient mediterranean shipwreck by greek sponge divers in 1900 (after nearly 2,000 years of submersion). its function, however, would elude academics, researchers, computer scientists, and archaeologists for still another century. whoever turned the handle on the side of i decoding the heavens recounts the discovery of the antikythera mechanism, arguably the most remarkable archaeological find in human history. a mechanical computer dating from the second century bce, it was recovered from an ancient mediterranean shipwreck by greek sponge divers in 1900 (after nearly 2,000 years of submersion). its function, however, would elude academics, researchers, computer scientists, and archaeologists for still another century. whoever turned the handle on the side of its wooden case became master of the cosmos, winding forwards or backwards to see everything about the sky at any chosen moment. pointers on the front showed the changing positions of the sun, moon and planets in the zodiac, the date, as well as the phase of the moon, while spiral dials on the back showed the month and year according to a combined lunar-solar calendar, and the timing of eclipses. inscribed text around the front dial revealed which star constellations were rising and setting at each moment, while the writing on the back gave details of the characteristics and location of the predicted eclipses. the mechanism's owner could zoom in on any nearby day- today, tomorrow, last tuesday- or he could travel far across distant centuries. an intricate, sophisticated device constructed from dozens of gears, its mechanical complexity is baffling, as similar technology was not thought to have originated until some millennium and a half later. it's hard to overestimate the uniqueness of the find. before the antikythera mechanism, not one single gearwheel had ever been found from antiquity, nor indeed any example of an accurate pointer or scale. apart from the antikythera mechanism, they still haven't. despite having unlocked the antikythera's inner workings, scholars disagree on its origins, designer, and ultimate purpose. many theories point to hipparchus, ancient greek astronomer & mathematician, as the device's inventor, yet some evidence points instead to archimedes, and others to posidonius, a stoic philosopher. the most recent research seems to indicate that the device's astronomical and technical features may have been based upon babylonian scientific advances. although research remains ongoing, the antikythera's purpose may never be fully discerned. speculation about its application ranges from its possible use in developing horoscopes to a "philosophical or religious demonstration of the workings of the heavens." some even surmise that this ingenious mechanism may not be the only one of its kind. science journalist jo marchant's engrossing narrative is obviously well-researched. as her book chronicles the technological advances employed in the ever-evolving hunt for answers, we are introduced to an array of frustrated (and betrayed) researchers each racing to be the first to unravel the device's mysteries and collect accolades for their success. for whatever decoding the heavens may lack in style or flourish, it makes up for with intrigue and wonder. that the antikythera mechanism was ever chanced upon and pulled from the sea is itself quite an unlikely feat. that it was ever conceived of and constructed in the first place seems nearly an impossible one. "its discovery... was as spectacular as if the opening of tutankhamen's tomb had revealed the decayed but recognisable parts of an internal combustion engine." ~derek de solla price (scientist and early antikythera researcher)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    This account of the scientific inquiries into a piece of ancient machinery dated to 60-70 BC reads a bit like a Dan Brown novel -- but the story is non-fiction. Drama builds right up to the end, when the magazine Nature published the results of the Antikythera Research Project in November, 2006. Successive teams of competing researchers have added to knowledge of one of the first known astronomical computers: * Originally recovered from a wreck off Antikythera Island in 1900, Derek J. de Solla Pr This account of the scientific inquiries into a piece of ancient machinery dated to 60-70 BC reads a bit like a Dan Brown novel -- but the story is non-fiction. Drama builds right up to the end, when the magazine Nature published the results of the Antikythera Research Project in November, 2006. Successive teams of competing researchers have added to knowledge of one of the first known astronomical computers: * Originally recovered from a wreck off Antikythera Island in 1900, Derek J. de Solla Price originally speculated in the 1950s that it was used to track the motions of the moon and stars. Price was able to show that gearing matched the Metonic cycle used by Egyptian sky calendars. * Michael Wright would pick up on Price's work and show that the Antikythera mechanism was more complicated, showing the 76-year Callipic cycle, and likely showing the phases of the moon. * Mike Edmunds, Tony Freeth and others would image the device in more detail -- and find other remnant gears -- while engaged in the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, who would author the Nature article. They expanded on the complexity again, indicating that the zodiac, sun, moon and even eclipses could be predicted using the Antikythera mechanism. Along the way there are stories of the jealousy and competition of scientists trying to unravel the origin and use of this device. Its importance to scientific history cannot be underestimated: it may even indicate that the Greek use of the concept of "zero" occurred earlier than Ptolemy, who's given credit for it in the 2nd Century AD.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shaelene (aGirlWithBookss)

    I’ve been wanting to read this book for absolute ages! I finally got around to it and must say it did not disappoint. It’s really hard to find a comprehensive and complete history of the Antikythera mechanism and the many theories surrounding it. And this was put together in such an easy to understand way for someone without any former knowledge on the subject. Even with the book being dense in knowledge, I did not feel weighed down by it or felt slowed down by the story, it kept great pace and e I’ve been wanting to read this book for absolute ages! I finally got around to it and must say it did not disappoint. It’s really hard to find a comprehensive and complete history of the Antikythera mechanism and the many theories surrounding it. And this was put together in such an easy to understand way for someone without any former knowledge on the subject. Even with the book being dense in knowledge, I did not feel weighed down by it or felt slowed down by the story, it kept great pace and engagement the entire time. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to obtaining my own copy to add to my library. 5 stars.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Rob Thompson

    Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-old Computer and the Century Long Search to Discover Its Secrets by Jo Marchant is an exploration of the history and significance of the Antikythera Mechanism (/ˌæntɪkɪˈθɪərə/ an-ti-ki-theer-ə), an ancient mechanical calculator (also described as the first known mechanical computer) designed to calculate astronomical positions. Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until a thousand years later. (view spoiler)[Marchant approaches the myst Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-old Computer and the Century Long Search to Discover Its Secrets by Jo Marchant is an exploration of the history and significance of the Antikythera Mechanism (/ˌæntɪkɪˈθɪərə/ an-ti-ki-theer-ə), an ancient mechanical calculator (also described as the first known mechanical computer) designed to calculate astronomical positions. Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until a thousand years later. (view spoiler)[Marchant approaches the mystery of the mechanism in a narrative that begins with the discovery of the Antikythera wreck in 1901 and includes a primer on the development of scuba gear in the 19th century. Throughout the book, Marchant weaves ancient history with the lives and travails of the handful of contemporary scientists who bucked conventional wisdom with their belief that the mechanism embodied technological and mathematical expertise thought to be impossible for its time. It is believed to have been built about 150–100 BC and yet the delicate bronze clockwork it embodies would not be known to Europe until the Middle Ages. (hide spoiler)] A work of caution. The story involves complicated descriptions of astronomical theory. Large amounts of detail on mechanical parts. And digressions on analytical instruments. These are all impossible to understand without drawings. I listened to the audio book. As such huge amounts of technical detail were lost. It plods along at a glacial pace. Personally, I got more out watching a documentary on the mechanism.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Genevieve

    Absolutely fascinating story: an ancient Greek geared mechanism found in a shipwreck, and the struggle by various researchers to figure out what it was, working from a corroded and fragmented artifact. The writing is accessible and lively; at times a little too journalist-y for my tastes, but very readable. I now really want to go see the tower of the winds in Athens (as well as the Antikythera mechanism itself.)

  7. 4 out of 5

    Steve Wiggins

    The Antikythera device is one of the true marvels of human technology. Written with the flare of a detective story and the credibility of a science writer, Marchant's book is a fantastic introduction to a machine that has to be read about to be believed. Please see my blog for further remarks: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World. The Antikythera device is one of the true marvels of human technology. Written with the flare of a detective story and the credibility of a science writer, Marchant's book is a fantastic introduction to a machine that has to be read about to be believed. Please see my blog for further remarks: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Victor Sonkin

    1. Around 1900, a major find is found near Antikythera during a sponge search; for a long time, it is being searched by Greeks (who are recently, and not completely, independent and proud about it). For the first time in such cases, underwater archaeology produces results (a previous attempt to lift the traces of the Salamis battle was unsuccessful). However, the technology is still in its infancy: bends are ubiquitous and generally disregarded; underwater workers are never acknowledged. The 'me 1. Around 1900, a major find is found near Antikythera during a sponge search; for a long time, it is being searched by Greeks (who are recently, and not completely, independent and proud about it). For the first time in such cases, underwater archaeology produces results (a previous attempt to lift the traces of the Salamis battle was unsuccessful). However, the technology is still in its infancy: bends are ubiquitous and generally disregarded; underwater workers are never acknowledged. The 'mechanism' finds itself among other garbage from the site in a museum in Athens. 2. Soon, the remains of the device (damaged by neglect and air — a review of what happens to copper, bronze, iron and steel underwater and in other circumstances is included) were discovered, and, though it was virtually impossible to read (and there was a whole chunk of text without spaces), it was obvious that it was a very complex mechanism, something that did not seem probable for antiquity. Examples of gears were spotted in books (including a chariot 'taxometer', for example, and a number of inventions, such as the 'eternal screw', of Archimedes and his friends and followers), but there was nothing as complex as this. Researchers who contributed to the study were rear admiral John Theophanidis, the German expert Albert Rehm (who suffered during WWII and after, being a maverick opposed both to the Nazis and to the victors in the war), Rados, Rediadis etc. (an astrolabe, he claimed, even though it did not seem to be, being too complex and carried around in a box, like a typical onboard sea instrument). However, after the occupation and WWII the device sank into oblivion. 3. Decades pass; the chapter is spent in trying to define the origin of the wreck. Various methods are brought into play, including radiocarbon dating (which is faulty because the center of the trees is soon virtually dead even while the tree grows), underwater research (two attemps are made by Cousteau and his team at various times) and so on; the location could be Rhodos; Alexandria; Pergam — but probaby not the mainland or Athens. A stack of coins is found during the second Cousteau's attempt, and the wreck is tentatively dated to the 1st C BC. 4. Rewriting History. 4. A Heroic Reconstruction. 6. The Moon in a Box. 7. Mechanic's Workshop. 8. The New Boys. 9. A Stunning Idea. 10. Old Man of Syracuse. All in all, research continues, and a new mysterious artefact is presented in another museum. People from London's Science Museum team up, an Austrialian makes an appearance, old ideas are discarded, the device is measured using cutting-edge new technologies (by a company who hopes to improve its technology to scan airplane propellers). After all the efforts, the decision is that it seems to be a specialized (but not used by specialists, because there are lots of instructions for lay people) device which defines the dates of eclipses and the like — a 19-year cycle is involved, after which the device should be manually reset. There are questions and mysteries that remain, but all in all, this is what it seems to be — and it certainly proves that the ancient world was not without its hi-end technology. A very passionate and interesting book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Giorgio

    It´s a well written book. Now, I know A LOT about the history and the capabilities of the AntiKythera "computer"... BUT... Despite the author tries, there is no explanation how a "Ferrari Murcealago" appeared in a Ford T ´25 enviroment. Lost tech, a sudden ultra genius, who knows? I hoped the book would describe the level of tech necessary to produce the mechanism in those times... There is NO predecesor, the quoted ONES by the author are far away from the final product... it is something like "hey, t It´s a well written book. Now, I know A LOT about the history and the capabilities of the AntiKythera "computer"... BUT... Despite the author tries, there is no explanation how a "Ferrari Murcealago" appeared in a Ford T ´25 enviroment. Lost tech, a sudden ultra genius, who knows? I hoped the book would describe the level of tech necessary to produce the mechanism in those times... There is NO predecesor, the quoted ONES by the author are far away from the final product... it is something like "hey, they made a sun dial, they made a water clock... and they made... a COMPUTER!" Nothing in-between!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bernice Rocque

    A slow reveal spanning more than a century and a fascinating "cast" of obsessed characters propel this engrossing (nonfiction) historical mystery. In 1901, a perplexing artifact was discovered in an ancient shipwreck in the eastern Mediterranean. Jo Marchant, a science writer with a sense of humor, delivers each new story layer in context. We can appreciate how it took an array of persistent scientists, mechanical tinkerers, and historians, paired with advances in diving and computer technology A slow reveal spanning more than a century and a fascinating "cast" of obsessed characters propel this engrossing (nonfiction) historical mystery. In 1901, a perplexing artifact was discovered in an ancient shipwreck in the eastern Mediterranean. Jo Marchant, a science writer with a sense of humor, delivers each new story layer in context. We can appreciate how it took an array of persistent scientists, mechanical tinkerers, and historians, paired with advances in diving and computer technology to release the secrets of the antikytera device.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bianca

    Good I'm not very technical so some parts I skimmed over but even at that it was a good read. The illustrations in the Kindle addition appear haphazardly in the middle all of a sudden while your reading which is weird. Wish there was a better way to do this with the illustrations. Some things I even googled for a visual point of reference because I wasn't aware I'd eventually stumble upon the illustrations. All in all, pretty decent read. Good I'm not very technical so some parts I skimmed over but even at that it was a good read. The illustrations in the Kindle addition appear haphazardly in the middle all of a sudden while your reading which is weird. Wish there was a better way to do this with the illustrations. Some things I even googled for a visual point of reference because I wasn't aware I'd eventually stumble upon the illustrations. All in all, pretty decent read.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kieran Milner

    Reads Like a Detective Story. I was inspired to purchase this book after seeing a video of the author giving a lecture on the Antikythera device. I was particularly impressed by the fact that she didn't use any notes. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read on a subject that could befall an boring. I have no hesitation in giving it five stars. Reads Like a Detective Story. I was inspired to purchase this book after seeing a video of the author giving a lecture on the Antikythera device. I was particularly impressed by the fact that she didn't use any notes. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read on a subject that could befall an boring. I have no hesitation in giving it five stars.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Paul moved to LibraryThing

    Terrible dramatising writing. Maybe the author would rather write fiction. Dwelling on irrelevant minutiae, personal stories and general incompetence of the Greek government (who'd have thunk it). There are only a few pages left for the poor Antikythera which this book was meant to popularise. Terrible dramatising writing. Maybe the author would rather write fiction. Dwelling on irrelevant minutiae, personal stories and general incompetence of the Greek government (who'd have thunk it). There are only a few pages left for the poor Antikythera which this book was meant to popularise.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Hebamic

    Household's seamlessly blended with the action to offer the reader the perfect degree of authenticity which allows us to completely immerse ourselves in his near future / alternate reality and downright cool! Household's seamlessly blended with the action to offer the reader the perfect degree of authenticity which allows us to completely immerse ourselves in his near future / alternate reality and downright cool!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Johanna

    I didn't want this book to end. it was a perfect summary of a complex machine with an even more mysterious history. I didn't want this book to end. it was a perfect summary of a complex machine with an even more mysterious history.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Literary_Octopus

    Very interesting subject matter, but at times it felt like the writer was stretching out into a book, a Wikipedia article's amount of information. Very interesting subject matter, but at times it felt like the writer was stretching out into a book, a Wikipedia article's amount of information.

  17. 4 out of 5

    a hooded figure from your friendly neighbourhood dog park

    [Audiobook]

  18. 4 out of 5

    Vincent Anton

    This book explained the mystery of the Antikythera mechanism, the finding and the process of explaining such complex item in a clear and easy reveling way. Really great to read

  19. 4 out of 5

    Glenn

    Another narrative showing a key missing part to the puzzle we call " history". Another narrative showing a key missing part to the puzzle we call " history".

  20. 4 out of 5

    Danielle

    Epic saga of the quest for knowledge over the centuries. Not a simple book, but easy to read, well done.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Carlos Oliver

    Very nice blend of math, history, and personal drama.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    This writer is just so good at conveying science, particularly strange and esoteric science, accessibly and engagingly.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Brenda Warner

    It was easy to connect to the characters in this book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Reviews by Joline

    The main characters develop well with each other and Jo Marchant make it where you seem to have a personal connection to them when as he unravels their histories.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Y. Ho

    Surprisingly entertaining. Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets is a fun read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Gladys

    I know I have a gem in my hands.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Marion

    There are some ire ties to resent past world happenings that make the book so believable. The tragedies that people face and how they adapt to deal with their losses.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bren

    It's easy to believe any of this could happen tomorrow. It's easy to believe any of this could happen tomorrow.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Margy

    Grabs and keeps you locked in through hours.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Annie Kate

    Around 1900, Greek sponge divers found a system of gears, very intricate and ancient. How old? Well, it seems it was almost 2000 years old.... And that’s a problem, because ‘everyone knew’ that the ancient Greeks were not interested in practical things like technology, and they were ‘not advanced enough’ to have such complex systems. It turns out that modern man, in his unending hubris, has once again underestimated those who lived in the past, making the whole story of the Antikythera mechanism Around 1900, Greek sponge divers found a system of gears, very intricate and ancient. How old? Well, it seems it was almost 2000 years old.... And that’s a problem, because ‘everyone knew’ that the ancient Greeks were not interested in practical things like technology, and they were ‘not advanced enough’ to have such complex systems. It turns out that modern man, in his unending hubris, has once again underestimated those who lived in the past, making the whole story of the Antikythera mechanism fascinating on many levels. For over a hundred years, through wars and upheavals, one person after another has fallen under the spell of the Antikythera mechanism, as it came to be called. People wondered what it was for, how it worked, where it came from, why it was on the ship, and who made it. The lucky ones got to study the fragile artifact, count its gears, and image it in various ways. Then they went off with their images and gear ratios to try to decipher the mechanism’s use, building models and writing papers. Marchant discusses the Antikthera mechanism’s modern story as a process, step by step, and this has both positive and negative aspects. The negative ones, of course, are that we keep on going down rabbit trails along with the researchers. The positive aspects are that we learn about so much more than just the mechanism, as well as learning about the mechanism itself in much greater detail than we otherwise would have. From a careful explanation of the Antikythera mechanism, to the analysis of water clocks, to a discussion of the influence of Archmedes’ teacher at the Alexandria museum, to the first detailed outline of eclipses I have ever come across, Decoding the Heavens combines history, technology, and scientific sleuthing in a well-written narrative. I enjoyed this book hugely and learned an enormous amount. It is, at times, technical, but Marchant goes out of her way to explain the many unusual terms and ideas. And, throughout the book, there is the wonder that the ancient Greeks had the knowledge and skill to make such ‘advanced’ equipment. Of course, the world is full of other evidence of the advanced abilities of ancient man and crazy explanations abound. If, however, one rejects the concepts of alien beings helping to build the pyramids, for example, one is left with the possibility that, perhaps, ancient man was very intelligent and knew about technologies that have not yet been rediscovered. This would be in line with a literal understanding of the Bible. However, since neither the alien explanation nor the biblical one fits in with the general paradigm of our age, the whole issue of anomalous technological artifacts and abilities is often ignored by scholars. Be that as it may, Marchant sums up her perspective in this profound ending to her book: Finding out who made the Antikythera mechanism and why also turns upside down any notion we might have had about ancient technology being ‘primitive’ and our own being so ‘advanced’. After all, where we see practical machinery that can measure time accurately and do work, the Greeks saw a way to gain knowledge, demonstrate the beauty of the heavens and get closer to the gods. Decoding the Heavens by Jo Marchant is the kind of book that would meet the math and science reading requirement in our homeschool high school. It will also appeal to anyone interested in the history of science, ancient history, time-keeping, and astronomy, and will broaden every reader’s horizons. Highly recommended. Note: My review makes the book sound philosophical, and it is at times, but it is also quite technical and a lot of fun.

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