In 1901, parts of a mysterious device were recovered from a 2,000-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, an island between Crete and Greece. Called the Antikythera Mechanism, many scientists believed it to be an ancient analog computer, but had no ideas how to use it. Ancient Greek technicians (like their modern-day counterparts) would probably have told them to “read the f***ing manual.” After ten years of painstaking scanning of its surface using advanced three-dimensional x-ray technology, some of the instructions have finally been translated and, no, they don’t say “Turn device off and on and try again.”
According to a new report in the Almagest journal, an international team of researchers from the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation were able to read 3,500 characters of text (some only 1/20 of an inch high). According to Mike Edmunds, emeritus professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University, the letters, which appear to be 25% of the total on the original device, seem to be a label or explanation of the device rather than a user’s manual.
It’s not telling you how to use it, it says ‘what you see is such and such,’ rather than ‘turn this knob and it shows you something.’
That so-called ‘label’ explains that the mechanism’s bronze gears and plates operated a calendar of phases of the moon and sun, positions of the planets and stars in the zodiac and future eclipses. Alexander Jones, professor of the history of ancient science at New York University, explains why the team calls it “a philosopher’s guide to the galaxy.”
It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos. It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.
The team believes that the style of the text on the device indicates that it was not a rich person’s toy but a teaching tool that linked astronomy, meteorology and astral divination … a tool used by philosophers rather than astronomers or astrologists to explain how eclipses and other events might influence behavior.
Can it teach us anything? That depends … how many of us actually read the f***ing manuals?