Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Antikythera Mechanism... Built With LEGO

I'll be honest, I had little clue about what the "Antikythera Mechanism" was. Although I'd heard of it, I didn't know who built it, when it was built or why it was built.
As it turns out, in 1901, divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera found a device on board a shipwreck dating back over 2,000 years. Not much was known about the "device" until, in 2006, scientists carried out X-ray tomography on what remained of the complex artifact.

According to the recent Nature article Ancient astronomy: Mechanical inspiration, by Jo Marchant:
"The device, which dates from the second or early first century BC, was enclosed in a wooden box roughly 30 centimetres high by 20 centimetres wide, contained more than 30 bronze gearwheels and was covered with Greek inscriptions. On the front was a large circular dial with two concentric scales. One, inscribed with names of the months, was divided into the 365 days of the year; the other, divided into 360 degrees, was marked with the 12 signs of the zodiac."
The device -- which sounds like something that belongs in a Dan Brown novel -- is an ancient celestial computer, driven by gears to carry out the calculations and dials to accurately predict heavenly events, such as solar eclipses. The technology used to construct the device wasn't thought to be available for another 1,000 years.
According to Adam Rutherford, editor of Nature, the science journal has a long standing relationship with the Antikythera Mechanism. In a recent email, Rutherford pointed to a video he had commissioned in the spirit of continuing Nature coverage of this fascinating device. But he hadn't commissioned a bland documentary about the history of the Antikythera Mechanism, he'd commissioned an engineer to build the thing out of LEGO!
The result is an engrossing stop animation production of a LEGO replica of this ancient celestial calculator. For me, this video really put the device in perspective. The Greeks, over 2,000 years ago, built a means of predicting the positions of the known planets, the sun, even the elliptical motions of planetary orbits. They'd drawn inspiration from the Babylonians (according to new research reported on by Nature) and re-written the history of what we understand of the ancient civilization's technical prowess.
Sadly for the ancient Greeks, the Antikythera Mechanism was lost for 2,000 years at the bottom of the ocean and only now are we beginning to understand just how advanced this fascinating piece of technology truly is.

Watch this video, it's awesome:


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