Book Review — Marchant, Decoding the Heavens

Marchant, Jo, Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets, Da Capo Press, 2009, 328 pp.

Defining the Word “Anachronism”

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the sponge divers of Greece lived through a technical revolution … the appearance of the diving helmet. After many centuries of free diving to harvest local sponges, the new equipment suddenly allowed access to much more of the Mediterranean sea floor and previously unexploited sponge beds. The industry boomed. Inadvertently, the diving helmet also led to the discovery of a shipwreck off the coast of the small island of Antikythera. Amidst the spectacular bronze and marble statues at the wreck site was a strange lunch box-sized lump, covered in a limestone coating from centuries of immersion and distorted by the effects of decomposition and corrosion. Here and there were visible bits of wood and corroded bronze, faint inscriptions of ancient Greek and what appeared to be thin loops or gears.

Compared to the glamorous artworks it was found with, the “lump” was rather unprepossessing and, indeed, it spent most of the 20th century in obscurity. Not knowing what it was, the curators made little effort to preserve the object, and increasingly, it broke into a more and more fragments in the storage rooms of the Athens’ National Archaeological Museum. The early 20th century descriptions made their way into the hands of a physicist and historian of science named Derek De Solla Price. In the 1950s, he made serious efforts to fully explain what it was, culminating in a 1974 book Gears From the Greeks. And it was partly through his efforts that people as diverse as Arthur C. Clarke, Jacques Cousteau, and Richard Feynman took an interest in the enigmatic archaeological find.

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Stephenson — Anathem (A Review)

Stephenson, Neal, Anathem, William Morrow, 2008, 937 pp.

Author Neal Stephenson has forged a substantial body of fiction in the last 15 years by combining elaborate narratives and witty, humourous dialogue with a more serious consideration of scientific and philosophical issues. Having covered nanotechnology, cryptography, and the early stirrings of Newtonian science in his more recent books, Stephenson turns now to cosmology and the nature of human consciousness in Anathem. The biggest of big pictures.

Set thousands of years in the future, Anathem is an adventure story that fits perfectly into the science fiction genre. The conflict between science and culture has led to intermittent but repeated civil conflicts, resolved finally by isolating the scientific and mathematic minds into the equivalent of walled medieval cloisters (maths). Outside the walls society waxes and wanes, prospers and collapses, while inside the walls the life of the mind continues, year after year. Comparisons with the famous 50s science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz are inevitable.

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