Looking Back - Lessons of the Antikythera Mechanism Fri 29 Dec 06
At year-end most TV and radio news show typically take a look back at what has gone on in the past year. So as 2006 comes to a close I thought it would be helpful if I also took a look back on what has transpired. Back more than 2 thousand years, that is. Being something of a history buff I've been fascinated by recent news stories on the Antikythera Mechanism. Discovered by a sponge diver along with more seemingly glamorous artifacts in 1900 off of the Greek island of Antikythera the heavily encrusted and corroded mechanism lay un-noticed until 1902 when an archaeologist noted a gear-wheel embedded in it. However, it has only just now been determined how this device was used.
Created sometime around the end of the second century B.C. (i.e. over 2 thousand years ago!) the Antikythera Mechanism is the first known analog computer. Although it wasn't found completely intact the main fragment has at least 30 gear-wheels and numerous astronomical inscriptions. The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project has reported its findings in the journal Nature. The mechanism computed and displayed the movement of the Sun, the Moon and perhaps even the known planets around Earth, and predicted the dates of future eclipses. I find it utterly amazing and fascinating that they were able to accomplish so much given the knowledge and tools of the time.
Some of the things that I believe this illustrates:
- Simplicity, elegance and focus of purpose in design is enduring.
- The power of observation should never be under-estimated. It is amazing what you can learn just through observing how the world around you works. I find it mind boggling to think of the amount of astronomical observation that had to be done to do something like this.
- The power of the human mind is an awe-inspiring thing to contemplate.
As we often react to the every day pressure to get things done it might be worthwhile to contemplate what we can accomplish using computers if we go about it correctly. Four thousand year from now if an archaeologist should find the remains of your PC what would they conclude you were using it for?