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Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer--and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets Hardcover – February 10, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Edition edition (February 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030681742X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306817427
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #717,981 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Marchant, editor of New Science, relates the century-long struggle of competing amateurs and scientists to understand the secrets of a 2000-year-old clock-like mechanism found in 1901 by Greek divers off the coast of Antikythera, a small island near Tunisia. With new research and interviews, Marchant goes behind the scenes of the National Museum in Athens, which zealously guarded the treasure while overlooking its importance; examines the significant contributions of a London Science Museum assistant curator who spent more than 30 years building models of the device; and the 2006 discoveries made by a group of modern researchers using state-of-the-art X-ray. Beneath its ancient, calcified surfaces they found "delicate cogwheels of all sizes" with perfectly formed triangular teeth, astronomical inscriptions "crammed onto every surviving surface," and a 223-tooth manually-operated turntable that guides the device. Variously described as a calendar computer, a planetarium and an eclipse predictor,Marchant gives clear explanations of the questions and topics involved, including Greek astronomy and clockwork mechanisms. For all they've learned, however, the Antikythera mechanism still retains secrets that may reveal unknown connections between modern and ancient technology; this globe-trotting, era-spanning mystery should absorb armchair scientists of all kinds.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Discovered a century ago in an ancient Mediterranean shipwreck, the Antikythera mechanism instantly attracted scientific interest. It had gears, which was and remains unique among artifacts from Greco-Roman civilization. So begins Marchant’s mystery about the object, a tale that ends in triumph but not before inveigling individuals who not only puzzled over the device but also became obsessively devoted to figuring it out. Tantalized by the Antikythera mechanism, scholar Derek de Solla Price felt it was the clue with which he could rewrite the history of technology. Price’s conclusions, however, were challenged by a museum curator of Industrial Revolution technologies; he was Michael Wright, who emerges here as the David among academic Goliaths who, by the early 2000s, were closing in on a conclusive interpretation of the Antikythera mechanism. By then, archaeological evidence dated the ship on which it sank to between 70 and 60 BCE and suggested its connection to the astronomer Hipparchus. Science readers will be entranced by Marchant’s vibrant depiction of the characters in this remarkable story of ancient technology. --Gilbert Taylor

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Customer Reviews

Fascinating detective story that I'm sure few of us knew about.
Richard Jioras
Marchant has done her homework well, and has written her topic in a very readable yet uncompromising style.
David H. Bailey
Book is wonderful combination of science, history, detective story, and personal scientific adventure.
principle instigator

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The "Antikythera Mechanism" has baffled archeologists and scientists for more than a century. Discovered in an ancient Greek shipwreck in 1901 near the Greek island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete, it is the first known mechanical computer in human history. It is rumored to have been used to calculate astronomical positions, and probably dates to the first century before the Common Era (BCE).

The "Antikythera Mechanism" was remarkable in that its many gears betray a complexity not found elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world. Not until the high Medieval era would technological artifacts of similar complexity be found. With more than 30 gears, there is some difference of opinion on the number, it had the potential to enter a date and the mechanism could calculate the position of the Sun, Moon, or the other planets. It also had the capability to predict lunar and solar eclipses.

Jo Marchant, a well-known journalist and the editor of "New Scientist," has written a fascinating account of the discovery of this remarkable relic, its reconstruction, and the process of discovery of scientists gradually coming to understand its use. Made of bronze and found in pieces on the sea floor, it took considerable time to put it back together and to get it to work.

Hundreds of scholars have investigated the "Antikythera Mechanism," and employed high-technology analysis to understand the artifact. Even so, it took a century to unlock its secrets. Michael Wright, curator at the Science Museum in London, worked for more than two decades to build a working model of the artifact, using only tools and methods known to have been available in ancient Greece.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In 1900 an ancient shipwreck was discovered off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. Divers quickly brought up statues and other readily recognizable pieces, along with, almost as an afterthought, a strange lump of something metallic which at first seemed worthless. Then startled archaeologists and scientists noticed gears and cogs and realized that something far more interesting than any statue had been uncovered. The Antikythera mechanism was to perplex and intrigue investigators throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Jo Marchant, a science writer for Nature and other scientific journals, has the gift of writing clearly and excitingly about subjects which might seem impenetrably obscure to laymen. Decoding the Heavens is her account of the long process of determining what the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to do, how it actually functioned, and who might have been its original designer. She is able to give life to the succession of highly intelligent and sometimes irascible and eccentric investigators who spent much of their lives on the Antikythera Mechanism. She is also able to explain the complexities of modern technological developments which enabled the investigators to finally unravel the secrets of the Mechanism.

I really enjoyed Decoding the Heavens, particularly the parts in which Marchant speculates on who might have been the Mechanism's original designer. While I wish a map of the eastern Mediterranean had been included to help pinpoint Antikythera, Rhodes, Corinth, Syracuse, and the many other places mentioned in the book, I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone interested in the Greek and Roman world or in ancient and modern technology.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Fortunat Mueller-maerki on September 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Below is a different review of the same book, which I wrote for 'Antiquarian Horology':

JO MARCHANT,Decoding the Heavens :

A 2,000-Year-Old Computer and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets, published by Da Capo Press, Cambridge MA, 2009, hardcover. Also available in a UK edition as Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World's First Computer. Or borrow from the NAWCC Library in Columbia (Members only)

Most students of the history of timekeeping machinery will have come across various pieces of information on the Antikythera mechanism in their reading and recall the outline account of its discovery. In the fall of the year 1900, the Greek Captain Dimitros Kontos and his crew of sponge divers stumbled upon a shipwreck from antiquity off the island of Antikythera, and thereby started the science of underwater archeology. In addition to a large number of statues and other artifacts, one recovered item was completely different. It consisted of several fragments of a very complex, geared, bronze mechanism with mysterious inscriptions. Whatever that object was, it was destined to substantially rewrite the history of technology.

The book under review is an up-to-date, detailed retelling of the story of this mechanism, its discovery, its interpretation and the search for its function. The author incorporates the discoveries and new theories that have been developed about the Antikythera mechanism during the last several years.

Michael Wright, formerly of the London Science Museum, has constructed a new replica and published his findings in this magazine and elsewhere. Regular readers of Antiquarian Horology are probably familiar with his three major articles on the subject in 2003 (Vol. 27, pp. 270-279), 2005 (Vol.29, pp.
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