The Antikythera Mechanism and the Birth of Science?

[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

L'Atmosphere: Météorlogie Populaire

We had a talk recently at Leicester from Mike Edmunds, the professor at Cardiff who’s been leading the research into the Antikythera Mechanism. I plan to write more about that in the future, but one of the many highlights of the talk was that the mechanism has implications for how Greeks thought about Natural Philosophy, the precursor to Science.

The ancient Greek view of the world is strange. Sometimes you can be stunned by the skill of their observations, like when you see the Antikythera Mechanism. Other times their beliefs appear to make no sense at all. For instance the Athenians closed their silver mines in the winter – to allow the silver to grow back. Something that’s puzzled me is how people who were not stupid could think such a thing. Surely someone would have noticed the rock was as it was at the end of last season? One possible answer is that until the invention of devices like the Antikythera Mechanism there was no alternative.

All cultures, ancient and modern, have a cosmology. In this sense it’s an explanation of how things came to be. The story we’re most familiar with, from Judaism, strikes me as being unusual. It’s a story of a crafted universe rather than a born universe and this is probably due in part to its monothestic nature. Polythestic cosmologies tend to be biological and in varying shades of gruesome and yuk. If you wanted to present the Greeks as different you could argue that the Greek poet Hesiod records that Gaia, Earth, came from out of Chaos. Yet even after that the creation of the rest of the world comes out of various parts of the universe mating with other parts of the universe.

I think this comes from experience. In an agricultural economy you’ll be intensely aware that the world is renewed each year through biology. Wheat grows from seeds, lambs from ewes. The one demonstrable factor for anything coming into being or doing anything is biological.

This is one of the difficult things I find tackling ancient Science. When you start fiddling around with levers to lift things or sighting buildings to face sunrises, you can try work it out without referring to ancient cosmologies. The Laws of Physics are the same for everyone, so one man couldn’t build the Great Pyramid by himself. At the same time, the ancients did not have a concept of Physical laws. If biology is the basic principle of the universe how does that alter your perception of the universe. Sometimes you get glimpses. The Romans thought Jupiter was a healthy planet being neither too hot like red baked Mars, or too cold like sluggish pallid Saturn. Other times we simple don’t know.

The Antikythera Mechanism is interesting because it potentially removes a lot of biology from the universe. It demonstrates that simple physical principles can drive a universe regardless of anything else, so long as someone is turning the handle. If that works for a model universe, then could the cosmos be purely physical with a divine force driving it from outside? The idea that inside the cosmos is a godless place becomes possible.

A common problem in dealing with ancient Science is that’s it’s hard to be certain Science existed in the ancient world. Science is not a digital state – someone didn’t simply have an idea and suddenly a non-scientific idea became scientific. Instead it was something that came together slowly. The Antikythera Mechanism shows one idea that would later be accepted as part of science, the reduction of observations to models and then using models to simulate observations. It also is similar in another respect. New ideas allow us to create new technologies, but those new technologies can in turn lead us towards new ideas. It seems plausible that the Antikythera Mechanism was an early example of that feedback loop.

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2 Responses to The Antikythera Mechanism and the Birth of Science?

  1. Edie says:

    This blog is nominated for the thinking blogger award as well. Details at my blog. Be well and regards.

  2. “The Antikythera Mechanism is interesting because it potentially removes a lot of biology from the universe.” Really? How? I don’t see that as following. Why does an ancient mechanical device trump the animistic and vital world of the ancient thinker? They are products of the same culture. One is techne, the other episteme, and both were valued for different reasons.

    And as to the idea of ancient “science” — applying that label is always a bit revisionist, since the word didn’t exist in that era…”Love of wisdom” yes, science…not so much.

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