New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Stars were visible; the music of the spheres was almost audible. Astrophysicists Xenophon Moussas’ and John Hugh Seiradakis’ air of passionate immersion in the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project was inspiring awe at a small dinner party hosted by Joel Kendall for them and including Eric Metaxas, on the terrace of a Manhattan restaurant in 2007. That they were astrophysicists seemed to touch on the otherworldly.
A Radio Astronomer and Physics Professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, Seiradakis’s main research interests are in Neutron Stars, Flare Stars, and The Centre of our Galaxy.
On Thursday, April 14, Seiradakis was back in the U.S. to awe once again, this time at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, with his presentation, “The World’s Oldest Computer: The Antikythera Mechanism”, part of the museum’s program series “Celebrating the Greeks”.
More than 21 centuries ago, Greek scientists created a mechanism that used brass gearwheels to predict the movements of the sun, the moon, and as noted by Seiradakis, newly revealed inscriptions appear to confirm previous speculations that the device could also calculate the positions of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the other planets known at that time. They had invented the world’s first computer. Today, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project’s team of international experts are using 21st century technology to decode the truth behind this astounding invention.
To say that the event was “sold-out” is an understatement, according to the museum’s President of Cultural Affairs, Connie Mourtoupalas, who humorously reported that the 80 RSVP’s received were minute compared to the amount of guests that kept arriving. “After 200 people, with not even standing room remaining, we had to let them spill out… and when that couldn’t continue, we were forced to stop admitting people.” Professors and scientists from the University of Chicago and other colleges, scientists from NASA Headquarters and the interested public were fascinated by the information and Seiradakis’s charismatic presentation.
Introductory Remarks were by Greek-born astrophysicist Dr. Thanasis (Tom) Economou, Senior Scientist at the University of Chicago Enrico Fermi Institute. The program also featured the artwork of two local artists inspired by the Antikythera Mechanism: Terry Poulos and Keith Skogstrom.
The mechanism’s corroded remains (housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens) were found by Greek sponge divers in in an ancient shipwreck, 60 meters down off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900. 2,000 years of submersion in the Aegean Sea had corroded the object into what looked like a mass of oxidized bronze, its original function totally unrecognizable. Now it can give us fresh insights into history and challenge our assumptions about technology transfer over the ages.
As Seiradakis noted, the technological bounds made by the brilliant mind that created this mechanism exceed today’s exponential technological advances. The technology of the Antikythera Mechanism was so advanced that it re-appeared in Europe only in the 16th century. The next similar device was the Prague clock, but even this clock is not as complicated as the Antikythera Mechanism.
“One of the reasons the discovery of a sophisticated device like this from ancient times is astonishing is that while ancient Greece was known for its philosophers and mathematicians, and its advanced geometry and architecture, very few dealt with technology,” Seiradakis had told the GN at an earlier time, “There were a few of course, Archimedes and Chiron, for example, and a few others, but nothing similar to this device was constructed for the next sixteen centuries.”
This is the only such mechanism that has been found, but it is possible that it wasn’t the only one made. Perhaps there were others, which also went down in shipwrecks or were recycled as utensils or weapons because they were made of bronze, a coveted metal. Seiradakis also suggested that perhaps the person that actually created the mechanism died, taking his knowledge with him–a genius would be needed to invent such a complicated device–or that he transferred the knowledge to students who perhaps were not able to understand it. Seiradakis also got philosophical with another possibility. “Another reason might have been that the Romans invaded Greece…and as you know, the bird does not sing as nicely or as loudly in a cage…philosophy and science need freedom.”
If there were unlimited resources and time, said Seiradakis, he would want to have the Antikythera Mechanism Project team research other aspects of the mechanism, one being what metals other than bronze were used to make the mechanism as sturdy as it is. Opening the topic of the extent of ancient Greek knowledge of metalworking, Seiradakis compared images of Spartan and Persian spearheads. Persian spearheads were larger, but they were softer, he said, pointing out the damage they showed. They were not nearly as deadly as the undamaged Spartan arrowheads. Seiradakis speculates that the ancients had a technology of which we are not aware, something way ahead of its times. perhaps even steel.
The mechanism was conceived of earlier than the previously thought date, through radio-carbon dating, of 100-150 B.C, as a dial on the mechanism includes a solar eclipse on May 12, 205 B.C., that pushing its creation back 50-100 years. Seiradakis also noted that unlike what was believed when he was here in 2007, Archimedes probably wasn’t its creator.
In 2007, Moussas and Seiradakis were in New York in the company of a crisp new replica of the Antikythera Mechanism with ultra-shiny gearwheels that was making its debut at the “Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece” exhibition at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Moussas was also here to present his new theory, that measuring time and geographic longitude were possible uses for the Antikythera Mechanism.
The replica, the first of its kind in America, was created by Dionisios Kriaris in collaboration with Dr. Moussas and the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project team.
On the 2007 trip, Seiradakis, through the Onassis Foundation, made a presentation of the mechanism at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. He remembers today the shock of being greeted outside of NASA with a huge neon sign welcoming him.
John Hugh Seiradakis received his first degree in Athens and completed his MSc and PhD. at Victoria University of Manchester in the UK. In addition to chairing many committees at his university and representing Greece on numerous European and international organizations, he has served as both Secretary and President of the Hellenic Astronomical Society.
Dr. Thanasis Economou, who has been building instruments for interplanetary spacecraft since the mid-1960s, built the Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer that successfully performed the first chemical analysis of Martian rocks aboard the Mars Pathfinder rover in 1997 is associated with three robotic interplanetary missions: the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Cassini mission to Saturn, and the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The “Celebrating the Greeks” program series is made possible by a generous donation from Grecian Delight Foods and the Parthenis families. among other generous contributors.