Researchers hail “major step” in decoding Greek astronomical device

Mysteries

MYSTERY WIRE — Researchers in the UK say they’ve made a “major step” in solving the mysterious Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek astronomical device recovered from a sunken treasure ship in 1901.

Experts from University College London (UCL) say they have created a new theoretical model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.

Early Greek astronomers tracked the movements of planets and their satellites across the sky, and believed the Sun moved around the Earth.

An astronomical calculator, considered a technological marvel of antiquity, is considered to be perhaps the world’s oldest mechanical computer.

The 2,000-year-old device, known as the Antikythera mechanism, was recovered by sponge divers from an ancient shipwreck in 1901 near Antikythera, a small island off Greece’s south coast.

Its insides look like a clock. About 30 bronze gears were cranked to calculate phases of the moon, eclipses, and other celestial information specific to a certain date.

Only about a third of the mechanism survived, split into 82 fragments. For over a century since its discovery the device has proved a tantalizing puzzle.

High-definition 3D x-rays in 2005 revealed thousands of text characters hidden inside the fragments, unread for around 2,000 years.

“It’s split into many pieces now, so actually piecing together what it did is a very difficult 3D jigsaw puzzle,” explains Tony Freeth, an honorary professor at University College London (UCL).

Freeth and his colleagues reported on Friday (March 12) they had “solved a major piece of the puzzle” that makes up the ancient mechanical device.

They have created a new theoretical model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.

It includes a display of how the ancient Greeks saw the cosmos, including the Sun, Moon, and planets.

“I think it is a major step, a major advance in our understanding of the mechanism because it recreates what we believe was how the mechanism actually looked,” explains Freeth, lead author on the paper, published on Friday (March 12) in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports.

Researchers say the discovery brings them one step closer to understanding the device’s full capabilities and how accurately it predicted astronomical events. They now plan to remake the mechanism using ancient techniques.

“It’s a very fundamental part of our technological history, and it takes back by a long, long time the origin of the ideas of making machines to calculate things,” says Freeth.

“The idea of making a calculating machine with bronze gear wheels says you can make those calculations with the turn of a hand. You don’t to do any complicated mathematics to calculate the consequences of your theoretical models of the cosmos. And this is a huge advance.”

The team’s research was published on Friday (March 12) in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports. The device is kept at Greece’s National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

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