1 story
1 follower

What should a Bayesian infer from the Antikythera Mechanism?

3 Comments and 11 Shares

That is the early “computer,” remember?:

Who made the famed Antikythera Mechanism, the astronomical calculator that was raised from an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901?

The complex clocklike assembly of bronze gears and display dials predates other known examples of similar technology by more than 1,000 years. It accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses, as well as solar, lunar and planetary positions.

For good measure, the mechanism also tracked the dates of the Olympic Games. Although it was not programmable in the modern sense, some have called it the first analog computer.

We now learn that the calendar of this mysterious device begins in 205 B.C.The key point, in my view, is that we have discovered no other comparable machine from antiquity or any other era other than modern times.  It took us until 2006 to even understand what the device was supposed to do, using advanced tomography, and we had been holding it since 1901.

So what to infer?  The first option is that this device was a true outlier, standing sui generis above its time.  Cardiff University professor Michael Edmunds “described the device as “just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind””.

As an artifact that is true, but is that so likely in terms of broader history?  It is pure luck that we fished this thing out of the Mediterranean in 1901.  (By the way, further dives are planned to search for more parts of it.)  The alternative possibility is that antiquity had many more such exotic devices, which have remained unreported, at least in the manuscripts which have come down to us.  That would imply, essentially, that we don’t have a very good idea of what antiquity was like.  In my view that is the more rational Bayesian conclusion.  It is more likely than thinking that we just lucked out to find this one unique, incredible device.  To put it another way, if you found some organic life on a traveling comet, you ought to conclude there is more of that life, or something related, somewhere else.

And to me, the Antikythera Mechanism does not to me sound like a “lone genius” kind of device: “The gear teeth were in the form of equilateral triangles with an average circular pitch of 1.6 mm, an average wheel thickness of 1.4 mm and an average air gap between gears of 1.2 mm.” (Wikipedia)  That suggests it was made by some kind of regular industrial process.  It also had some sophistications which modern Swiss watches do not.

Given this Bayesian conclusions, which other strange claims stand a decent chance of being true of antquity?  Which other surprises await us?

I find this an interesting passage: “the mysterious device was already pretty ancient by the time it went down some time around 85BC to 60BC with a ship carrying a bride and her dowry, io9 reports…”  You don’t find a lot of people carrying around a lot of ancient PCs today, so might there have been an Antikythera Great Stagnation way back when?  I think maybe so.

Here is a Lego model of the device.  Here is an introductory YouTube video.  Here is Wikipedia on the Antikythera Mechanism, a very good entry.

I owe thanks to Vic Sarjoo for pointers and Robin Hanson for a useful conversation on this topic.

Read the whole story
3475 days ago
Share this story
3 public comments
3480 days ago
When in doubt, bet on people in the past being just as smart and motivated as we are today…
Washington, DC
3480 days ago
Counterpoint: Handwashing before surgery was ridiculed by medical authorities as recently as 1847. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_surgery#Antiseptic_surgery
3480 days ago
dukeofwulf: it's certainly not the case that there hasn't been considerable progress but even in that specific case, the use of antiseptic treatments (wine, vinegar, honey, etc.) or simple flushing to prevent infection was common at least as far back as the ancient Greeks and Chinese and e.g. Hippocrates advised sterilizing sutures according to http://afids.org/publications/PDF/CRI/Prevention%20and%20Management%20of%20CRI%20-4-%20-%20History.pdf. Even without germ theory, you can observe a lot of practical high-level outcomes – if not earlier, the Romans at least were both methodical enough and had no shortage of wounded soldiers for statistical studies. There was a neat Reddit AskHistorians thread awhile back: http://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/1tn59a/how_likely_was_a_roman_soldier_to_survive_being/
3482 days ago
We always seem to forget that people in antiquity had the same brains as we do. And many of them had plenty of time to use them as survival was taken care of
Idle, Bradford, United Kingdom
3482 days ago
Some 'ancient' technology does seem puzzlingly sophisticated, outside of the lack of power technology and some metallurgy on par with 18th century technology. For instance Roman tunnel engineering.
Northern Virginia