Here's something to rival the latest plot twist on "Lost." The Washington Posthas an intriguing write-up this morning on a mystifying discovery off the coast of Crete: a sunken ship, nearly 2,000 years old, bearing some statues and assorted "junk." To wit:
Nine months later, an enterprising archaeologist cleared off a layer of organic material from one of the pieces of junk and found that it looked like a gearwheel. It had inscriptions in Greek characters and seemed to have something to do with astronomy.Read the whole thing up at the WaPo link. It's fascinating stuff.
That piece of "junk" went on to become the most celebrated find from the shipwreck; it is displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Research has shown that the wheel was part of a device so sophisticated that its complexity would not be matched for a thousand years -- it was also the world's first known analog computer...
Every discovery about the device has raised new questions. Who built the device, and for what purpose? Why did the technology behind it disappear for the next thousand years? What does the device tell us about ancient Greek culture? And does the marvelous construction, and the precise knowledge of the movement of the sun and moon and Earth that it implies, tell us how the ancients grappled with ideas about determinism and human destiny?
"We have gear trains from the 9th century in Baghdad used for simpler displays of the solar and lunar motions relative to one another -- they use eight gears," said François Charette, a historian of science in Germany who wrote an editorial accompanying a new study of the mechanism two weeks ago in the journal Nature. "In this case, we have more than 30 gears. To see it on a computer animation makes it mind-boggling. There is no doubt it was a technological masterpiece."