Decoding the heavens, p.1

Decoding the Heavens, page 1

 

Decoding the Heavens
 



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Decoding the Heavens


  Table of Contents

  Cover

  Copyright

  About the Author

  Dedication

  Decoding The Heavens

  Contents

  Prologue

  1: I See Dead People

  2: An Impossible Find

  3: Treasures of War

  4: Rewriting History

  5: A Heroic Reconstruction

  6: The Moon in a Box

  7: Mechanic’s Workshop

  8: The New Boys

  9: A Stunning Idea

  10: Old Man of Syracuse

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgements

  Picture Credits

  Sources and Further Reading

  Footnotes

  Index

  This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

  Epub ISBN: 9781409060475

  Version 1.0

  www.randomhouse.co.uk

  Published by William Heinemann 2009

  2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

  Copyright © Jo Marchant 2008

  Jo Marchant has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work

  This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  First published in Great Britain in 2008 by William Heinemann

  Windmill Books

  The Random House Group Limited

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  Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at: www.randomhouse.co.uk/offices.htm

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  www.rbooks.co.uk

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  ISBN 9780099519768

  The Random House Group Limited supports The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the leading international forest certification organisation. All our titles that are printed on Greenpeace approved FSC certified paper carry the FSC logo. Our paper procurement policy can be found at: www.rbooks.co.uk/environment

  Map and diagrams by ML Design, London, www.ml-design.co.uk

  Typeset by Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Grangemouth, Stirlingshire

  Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Bookmarque, Croydon CR0 4YY

  About the Author

  Jo Marchant is Opinion Editor at New Scientist magazine. She has a PhD in medical microbiology and has been a science journalist for nine years. She spent three years of that as an editor at the journal Nature, and her articles have also appeared in the Guardian and The Economist.

  She lives with her boyfriend in Brixton, London.

  To Ian

  DECODING THE HEAVENS

  Solving the Mystery of the World’s First Computer

  JO MARCHANT

  Contents

  Prologue

  1: I See Dead People

  2: An Impossible Find

  3: Treasures of War

  4: Rewriting History

  5: A Heroic Reconstruction

  6: The Moon in a Box

  7: Mechanic’s Workshop

  8: The New Boys

  9: A Stunning Idea

  10: Old Man of Syracuse

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgements

  Picture Credits

  Sources and Further Reading

  Index

  Prologue

  IN A CORNER of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens is something that doesn’t fit. It is nothing like the classical Greek statues and vases that fill the rest of the echoing hall. Three flat pieces of what looks like mouldy, green cardboard are delicately suspended inside a glass case.

  Within each piece, layers of what was once metal have been squashed together and are now covered with corrosion products – from the whitish green of tin oxide to the dark bluish green of copper chloride. They’ve been under the sea for 2,000 years, and it shows.

  Look closer though, and you’ll see something impossible. Through the deposits, shadowy outlines are visible: engraved letters, a large wheel and part of an encrusted but precisely marked circular scale. Next to these strange items an X-ray image shows what’s hidden inside. Beneath the ancient, calcified surfaces, delicate cogwheels of all sizes are jostling for space, their triangular teeth so perfectly formed it seems that any second they might start clicking round. The design of the mechanism is modern and immediately recognisable. It looks just like the inside of an alarm clock.

  This is the Antikythera mechanism. Its fragments are now known to contain at least 30 gear wheels and urgent inscriptions are crammed onto every surviving surface. Rescued from an ancient shipwreck in 1901, it is one of the most stunning artefacts we have from antiquity and, according to everything we know about the technology of the time, it shouldn’t exist. Nothing close to its sophistication appears again for well over a millennium, with the development of elaborate astronomical clocks in Renaissance Europe.

  Never mind the statues that fill the rest of the museum. Never mind the riches from all the ancient shipwrecks discovered since. Beautiful and inspiring as they are, each individual piece of art merely fleshes out our appreciation of the Greek sculptor’s craft. This unassuming object is different. Although 2,000 years under the sea have left it dull and battered, the ideas and expertise it embodies have turned upside down our understanding of who the ancient Greeks were and what they were capable of, igniting a mystery that has taken more than a century to decode.

  So what was it? Who on Earth could have made it? And once this complex technology arose, what caused it to be forgotten for so long? Since 1901 a number of men have devoted their lives to solving the mechanism and answering these questions, each unable to turn away from the mystery once it had found them. Many of them didn’t live to learn the whole truth, but each gleaned a part of it, and this book aims to tell their stories.

  None of this could have happened, however, without Captain Kontos and his hardy crew of sponge divers, for without them the Antikythera fragments would still be languishing at the bottom of the sea. They discovered the wreck and risked their lives in the first ever attempt to salvage artefacts from a sunken ship; a daring adventure from which they did not all return.

  1

  I See Dead People

  I might have reached my own land unscathed; but no, as I was doubling Cape Malea I was caught by wave and current and wind from the North and was driven off course and past Kythera. Then for nine days I was carried by ruthless winds over teeming ocean. On the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters, whose only fare is that fragrant fruit.

  — HOMER, THE ODYSSEY

  FOR THE ANCIENT Greeks, the ocean was the centre of the world. There was no single country with borders we’d recognise today as ‘Greece’; instead the Greeks, bound by a common culture and language, retained their identity as they spread far across the Mediterranean Sea. By Homer’s time, around t
he eighth century BC, Greek speakers from the ancient provinces of Attica, Boeotia, Laconia and Achaea had reached many far off lands – Macedonia and Thrace in the north; the scattered islands of the Aegean as well as Anatolia and the Asia Minor coast in the east; Egypt and Libya to the south; and Italy, Sicily, and France to the west.

  The only practical way to get between these far-flung settlements was by water. For thousands of years, ships – not just from Greece, but also the rival civilisations of Egypt, Phoenicia and later Rome – crisscrossed the Mediterranean. As well as settlers, they carried soldiers, slaves, diplomats and merchants. Goods transported as gifts and for trade included staples such as grain, wine and olive oil, but there were luxuries too from every corner: ostrich eggs from Libya, gold and ivory from Egypt, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Merchants carried amber beads from northern Europe and from the mines of Cyprus they brought copper – to forge the sought-after bronze weapons, armour and statues.

  At the centre of this watery world lay the mountainous peninsula we now call Greece. To get between the island-filled Aegean Sea in the east and the more open waters of the west, captains like Odysseus had to navigate their ships through the treacherous and stormy passage between the peninsula’s southern tip, Cape Malea, and the island of Crete.

  Nearly 3,000 years after Homer’s tale, this gateway hadn’t lost any of its malice. More than a hundred generations since The Odyssey entranced its first listeners, another crew of Greek sailors was trying to pass Cape Malea, on the way home to the Aegean island of Symi. But they, too, were blown off course and taken on an epic adventure of their own.

  It was the year 1900. The world was now dominated by the expanding British Empire of Queen Victoria and the spreading iron fingers of the Industrial Revolution. Together these forces were changing life beyond recognition. The first zeppelin flight had just taken place over Lake Constance in Germany and the first automobile show was opening in New York’s Madison Square Gardens. Seafaring was also being transformed. Britain’s Royal Navy was preparing to drop its first submarine into the grey waters at Barrow-in-Furness. And for the first time, gleaming steamships traversing the world’s oceans outnumbered vessels propelled by sail.

  In the Mediterranean, the revolution had reached one of the most prominent local industries: sponge diving. Since well before Homer’s time, Greek divers had earned a living cutting sponges from the seabed; we know that the ancients routinely used them for bathing and for cleaning the house. In one of the most famous examples, after the wandering hero Odysseus finally returns home to take violent revenge on the men who have been wooing his wife in his absence, he has his maidservants sponge the corpses’ blood from the tables (before he hangs them, too, for their disloyalty).

  The sponge divers’ profession changed little over thousands of years, from perhaps 6000 BC, when the earliest signs of agriculture appeared on Greek soil and the first ships ventured out across the Aegean Sea. The most accomplished and daring divers came from the south-eastern Dodecanese islands, especially Kalymnos and Symi, where the warm water nurtures particularly large specimens. Naked and armed with a sharp knife, the athletic sponge fishers would dive to around 30 metres, weighed down by a large, flat stone, and collect sponges in a net for as long as their lungs would allow.

  But, in the nineteenth century the sponge-diving industry was transformed for ever. Perhaps the change was inevitable, but if you’re looking for a particular individual to pin it on you could say it was down to a rather distinguished German engineer called Augustus Siebe. After learning metalworking in Berlin and serving as an artillery officer at the Battle of Waterloo, Siebe settled down in Soho, London. A prolific inventor, he had among other things a rotating water pump, a paper-making machine, a weighing scale and an icemaker to his name. Then in 1837 he invented a diving helmet, fitted to a watertight canvas suit.

  Like all Siebe’s inventions it was quite ingenious, although this contraption was to have a far greater impact than any of his others. Thanks to a valve in the helmet, a diver wearing the suit could breathe air fed through a hose from a compressor in a boat above. For the first time divers could descend as deep as they liked, or as far as the air hose would reach anyway, and stay underwater for much longer periods. The potential economic benefits for sponge diving were huge and in the 1860s the new suits were brought to Symi by an enterprising local merchant called Fotios Masatoridis.

  Each suit consisted of thick folds of canvas, tightly sealed with rubber and bolted onto a large bronze collar and breastplate. Screwed on top was a round copper helmet, so heavy that it took two hands to lift it, and once imprisoned inside the diver had only little portholes made of reinforced glass to see through. It was impossible to swim in such armour. Instead the divers had to trudge along the bottom, dragging air hose and lifeline behind them, like primitive astronauts tethered to a hovering spaceship on some dense, high-gravity planet.

  The expert divers were wary, to say the least, when confronted with these bizarre outfits. Then Masatoridis persuaded his pregnant wife to demonstrate. Obligingly clad, she clambered down the harbour steps until the waters met over her head. The helmet performed perfectly. Being upstaged by a woman – and a pregnant one at that – was unthinkable – so the suits were quickly accepted.

  At first they seemed miraculous. After some practice, the divers routinely descended to 70 metres below the surface. There they could tramp around on the seabed, hunting for sponges and harvesting them at leisure, while communicating with the boat above by means of a string tied to one wrist. The vastly increased harvest transformed the industry and the merchants selling these bumper hauls (if not the divers themselves) made huge fortunes. At the industry’s height, between 1890 and 1910, thousands of divers worked each year, putting in perhaps a million hours of time on the sea bottom between them.

  There was a tragic human cost for this financial success, however, as the suits brought with them a prolific and indiscriminate killer: the bends.

  If you breathe compressed air at depth, the nitrogen in the air in your lungs is at a higher pressure than it is in your body, so it dissolves in your blood and tissues until an equilibrium is reached. This isn’t a problem, until you want to return to the surface. Then, if you go up too fast and the pressure drops too quickly, the nitrogen in your body doesn’t have a chance to pass back into the air. Instead it pops out of solution as bubbles – just like the dissolved carbon dioxide does when you pop the cork on a bottle of champagne.

  The symptoms of the bends depend on where the bubbles form – most commonly they appear in the joints, causing excruciating pain and leaving you unable to straighten your limbs. In the brain the bubbles cause confusion, memory loss and headaches. In the spinal cord and nervous system they cause paralysis; in the skin they cause itching, and a sensation of tiny insects crawling over the body. Bubbles can clog up your veins, cut off the spinal nerves or cause a heart embolism. Severe cases are fatal, and it’s not a nice way to go.

  The first cases of the bends were reported in the 1840s, not in divers but in miners and bridge construction workers who were exposed to underground shafts in which the air was kept at high pressure to keep out the water. The condition got its name from workers digging the pier excavations of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s. They often came up in tortured body positions that reminded their colleagues – rather callously, it has to be said – of an affected curve of the back that was a popular pose among women at the time, known as ‘the Grecian bend’.

  But the sponge divers who started using the new diving suits in the 1860s didn’t know any of this. It wasn’t long before they started dying, and in huge numbers. Between 1886 and 1910 around 10,000 divers died from the bends and 20,000 were paralysed; that’s about half of those who went out on the boats each year.

  The impact on the sponge-diving communities was enormous, with almost every family affected. Largely due to pressure from divers’ wives and widows, the suit was soon banned in many countries, including Lebanon a
nd Egypt. But a mixture of commercial pressures and pride kept the Dodecanese divers using it. Compared to a mundane life on dry land, diving gave them a chance for money and glory; as in war, every day was lived as if it were their last.

  Now more than ever the sponge fishers were a tribe apart. Young, macho and proud, they faced great danger for the riches they brought home and were seen as glamorous heroes on the tiny islands from whence they came. Every spring, fleets of flimsy wooden boats would leave Symi and the surrounding islands, each carrying anything up to 15 divers who shared one battered suit and hand-powered air compressor. They would spend an exhausting summer living and working on the boat, travelling as far afield as North Africa. In the autumn those who survived would return, laden with cargo and ready to celebrate.

  So it was that in the autumn of 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kontos and his crew were sailing home to Symi from their summer sponge-fishing grounds off the coast of Tunisia. Kontos was a former master diver himself, but was now in charge of two tiny sailing boats. Under his command were six divers as well as 20 oarsmen, so they could still make progress on windless days.

  Their caiques or cutters were just a few metres long and built pretty much as sponge-divers’ boats had been since before Homer’s time – the outboard motor would not reach the Aegean for another couple of decades. Vertical beams wedged tightly inside a horizontal wooden frame formed the delicate S-shape curve of the hull, while a spider web of ropes splayed down from the fragile masts, each proudly topped with a Greek flag. (Symi, along with the rest of the Dodecanese islands, remained under Turkish rule until 1947, but the inhabitants nevertheless saw themselves as fiercely Greek.) After six months’ hard work the decks were so densely filled with drying sponges that there was hardly room to move, with yet more strung from every available inch of rigging.

  The way home took Kontos and his men northeast from Tunisian waters and up to Cape Malea. But like so many sea travellers following the route before them they fell foul of a violent gale, and were blown towards a barely habited islet.

 

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