Antikythera art

31. October 2008 09:01
Antikythera main fragment
I thought I'd do my bit for the arts today by flagging up some of the various creative projects inspired by the Antikythera mechanism.
First, there's poetry from a site called The Starlite Cafe. Scroll down for the poem... be warned, some of the rhymes are very dodgy, but it's quite sweet. 
Then there's art. My favourite so far is that of Morgaine von Slatt. She says she's inspired by "antique scientific instruments, gears and old machinery and alchemy". The Antikythera artwork shown here uses one of the diagrams from a 1974 paper by a science historian called Derek de Solla Price (this was the culmination of his life's work on the mechanism). I don't think it's free online anywhere but you can see the original diagram here. For some reason von Slatt's interpretation reminds me of the tracks from the bubble chambers used by early particle accelerators. Beautiful.
And there are plenty of bands. Here are links to three:
The Antikythera Mechanism
Surprisingly good. It's "shoe gaze, alternative, post punk", apparently. The song I listened to reminded me of driving in the rain.
Black t-shirts, headbanging, lots of screaming. No idea what they're saying so apologies if any of it is inappropriate!
Antikythera Device
Acoustic guitars. Pudding bowl haircuts. Great use of Godzilla footage. Absolutely no singing.
Finally, there is even a scent inspired by the Antikythera mechanism. It includes teakwood, oak, black vanilla and tobacco, and apparently it gives you the sense being in a busy workshop of polished gears and polished wood...


Ötzi the ice man

30. October 2008 19:48
Otzi the ice man

Ancient mystery of the day: does Ötzi, a 5300-year-old human mummy found frozen in the European Alps in 1991, have any living descendants today?

Ötzi was fully defrosted in 2000, and since then, Franco Rollo of the University of Camerino, Italy, and his colleagues have been gleaning what they can from the mummy's DNA.

In 2002 we found out from DNA extracted from the contents of his gut that before Ötzi died he feasted on ibex goat and vegetables, followed by red deer and possibly some grains. This carnivorous diet, along with an arrow head found in his shoulder, suggested that he was a hunter, killed by a hungry rival. DNA from pollen on Ötzi's clothes also showed that his last walk was through a coniferous wood.

Today, Rollo has published a paper in the journal Current Biology, in which he reports the full sequence of the DNA from Ötzi's mitochondria. These are tiny organelles inside cells which produce energy, and they have a few genes of their own. Mitochondria are only inherited through the maternal line, and their DNA is good for tracking ancestry over very long periods of time.

Rollo's team reports that Ötzi belonged to a lineage for which no survivors are known today, suggesting that his line probably went extinct.

But within hours of the announcement, a rival team said they had found the opposite. Alan Cooper, head of the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and his colleagues have been working on their own analysis of the mummy's mitochondrial DNA, and have apparently found someone living today who is "very, very closely related" to Ötzi. They have submitted a paper for publication in a journal, so I guess we'll have to wait till it comes out to see the full details.


Archimedes online

29. October 2008 08:18
The StomachionI just heard that later today, all of the data from the Archimedes Palimpsest Project is being made freely available online.

I'm particularly interested in Archimedes because of his possible links to the Antikythera mechanism. He lived in Syracuse in the third century BC. That's too early for him to have made the device, which dates from around 100 BC, but he may have been the original inventor of this type of gadget. Ancient texts say he built a bronze model that showed the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets around the Earth. And the month names used on the mechanism's calendar may well have come from Syracuse. More on all this in my book of course!

Anyway, the Archimedes Palimpsest is one of the most important sources of information about the great mathematician's work. A palimpsest is a hidden text, created when Medieval scholars scraped the ink from old parchment so that they could use it again. Luckily for us, traces of the original words often remain. This palimpsest consists of seven of Archimedes' treatises, copied by a scribe in the tenth century, probably in Constantinople, and then written over with a prayer book in the 13th century.

For one of the treatises (On Floating Bodies), this is the only surviving copy in Greek. And for two others (The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Stomachion) this is the only copy that survives at all.

The palimpsest came to light in 1906 but was then lost for much of the twentieth century. It turned up decades later and was sold at auction for $2.2 million on 29 October 1998, to a mysterious US collector known only as "Mr B". He deposited it at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and has funded a project to conserve the parchment and image the lost writing.

Researchers have made Archimedes' words clear again by taking photos of the pages using lots of different wavelengths, then combining the images on a computer and manipulating them to highlight the Greek text while toning down the top layer of writing. Now, exactly ten years after the palimpsest was sold at auction, they're putting it all online.

Reviel Netz of Stanford University is one of the researchers who has been deciphering the text. He reckons the Method shows that Archimedes was using infinity in his calculations, something that the ancient Greeks weren't thought to have done. Meanwhile the Stomachion is the name of an ancient game in which a square was divided into 14 pieces according to a set pattern (see the pic). The name literally translates as "belly ache", presumably because of its difficulty. It wasn't clear what the game involved, but Netz thinks the idea was to work out how many different ways the 14 pieces could be put back together into a square (17,152 according to modern scholars). If so, it would mean that Archimedes was the founder of the field of combinatorics - the study of numbers of possible combinations.

If you want to know more, Netz, along with curator William Noel, has written a great book about the palimpsest called The Archimedes Codex. They reckon there's still plenty more information to be gleaned from the texts. And now that all the images are freely available, anyone can have a go at reading them.


Models of the Antikythera mechanism

28. October 2008 18:17
Michael Wright's model of the Antikythera mechanism

Hello, and welcome to my blog! My plan is to keep you updated about any new developments relating to the Antikythera mechanism - there is lots of research going on and plenty of questions still to be answered, so I'm sure there will be some surprises to come. In particular, scholars are still reading the inscriptions that covered the device, so I'll write here about the progress they make as I hear about it.

I'll also let you know when I add new material to this website, and I'll keep an eye out for any other interesting news relating to ancient history, and ancient science and technology in particular.

For my first post, I thought I'd let you know about some of the models that have been made of the Antikythera mechanism, as a collection of them has just been brought together for an exhibition in Athens. The exhibition opened at the Ionic Centre last week, and it runs until 14 December. Since 2006, when Nature published a high profile paper explaining how the mechanism would have worked, building models of it - real and virtual - seems to have become quite a popular pastime. The ones on show in Athens include a transparent device made by an Italian amateur astronomer and computer programmer called Massimo Vicentini and a less traditional interpretation from a Dutch engineer called Tatjana van Vark. 

But my favourite has to be the model made by Michael Wright, who worked for many years as a curator at the Science Museum in London. He has spent twenty years studying the Antikythera mechanism, and after X-raying the surviving fragments he built a beautiful working brass model. Unfortunately he doesn't have a website I can link to but here's a photo of the model, that Wright sent to me. I'm hoping to post a video of it soon. 

Several people have asked me if any Antikythera models are commercially available. As far as I know there are no plans for this yet, but with the interest that's out there I'm sure it's only a matter of time.