Book Review: 'Decoding the Heavens' by Jo Marchant

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Decoding the Heavens

By Jo Marchant

Da Capo. 328 pp. $25

In 1900, a group of divers and archaeologists salvaging an ancient ship fished out a corroded, fragmented box with Greek writing on it and bronze gearwheels arrayed with a sophistication unmatched until the Renaissance.

They had found the Antikythera Mechanism, an astronomical computer dating from about 80 B.C. that modeled the motions of the sun, the moon and possibly the planets, all by cranking a handle. "Its discovery . . . was as spectacular as if the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb had revealed the decayed but recognisable parts of an internal combustion engine," wrote Derek de Solla Price, one of a parade of historians, archaeologists and computer scientists to become obsessed with how the device worked.

Jo Marchant tackles the struggle to understand the machine with gusto. That the petty faults and occasional breathtaking inspiration of humans might be more interesting than the stars shouldn't surprise: As Sophocles put it, "Many are the wonders of the world, but none is more wonderful than man."

-- Nelson Hernandez

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