Where we attempt to fill you in on everything they forgot to teach you at school

From the Ancients to the Space-Age: We Owe a Debt of Thanks to the Telescope and the Lens

Where do you think we’d be if the telescope hadn’t been invented?  That’s a tough question to answer, and really, it doesn’t have just a single answer.  There are many things that we enjoy in our daily lives that owe their existence to the telescope, and some may not be terribly obvious.

Of course, we wouldn’t know nearly as much as we do about our solar system, our galaxy, and well, the universe.  By association though, we also wouldn’t have calendars, or Christmas, or TV and the internet.  Let me explain…

The history of the telescope most typically stretches back to one Galileo Galilei, though, while obviously a critical player in this tale, Galileo did not invent the telescope.  He merely adapted earlier designs and then used them to shatter the common beliefs of everyone on the planet.  No, officially, credit for the invention of the telescope goes to Hans Lippershey in 1608.

What’s that?  You’ve never hear of Hans Lippershey?  Yeah, that’s not uncommon, and there’s a reason for that.  The only reason Lippershey – who was a German spectacle maker (eye glasses) – gets that credit is because his design is the first for which we have a record of patent.  There are many others though, who could have beaten him to the punch, we just have no way of verifying the timeline.

What is known, is that thanks to Lippershey and those early pioneers of technology, men like Keppler, Huygens, and Hubble were able to provide both the tools and the knowledge we needed to drastically advance our understanding of the universe.

OK so, remember above, when I said that we might not have developed TV and the Internet without the telescope?  Here’s why: one of our favourite characters from the history of science, Sir Isaac Newton, is credited with, among many other things, discovering the spectrum of light.  That is, he discovered that colour is an intrinsic property of light and then he proved it.  In turn, through his long a study of optics, he invented the very first reflecting telescope – today called a Newtonian Telescope.  But again, he did not invent the telescope, he simply adapted earlier designs.

You’re probably still wondering what that has to do with TV, and I’ll tell you.  From Newton’s theory of chromatic aberration, which became his Theory of Light, many other things were eventually developed, such as glass electrostatic generators and tunable lasers.  This also included the much later invention in which the projection of light inside a tube, coupled with the manipulation of electrical signals could create a moving picture, also called a television image.

OK, that might be a stretch, but here’s what isn’t.

If the telescope was truly a parent technology to much of the technology of convenience and entertainment we have today, there’s one other thing that deserves to be mentioned.  None of this would be possible without the discovery and manufacture of lenses.

A lens is, simply, a piece of transparent material, often glass, which is used to focus light passing through from one side to the other.  It’s no more complicated than that, but it can be made so, i.e. bifocal eye glasses.

And the history of lenses is equally fascinating, and perhaps even more important than you realise.

The archaeological record holds many examples of crude lenses (and even convex mirrors) dating back to a pre-historic era, often made of crystal, obsidian, glass, and sometimes even gemstones.  The oldest known lens is the Nimrud Lens from ancient Assyria, approximately 2,700 years ago. It’s difficult to declare such an object a lens though, since it could very well have been used for several different tasks.  Though scholars have suggested that it may have been used either as a magnifying glass or burning glass.  This makes it seem possible, even, that the use of lenses could have contributed to the proliferation of fire as a tool.

By the height of the medieval period, lenses were beginning to find use in scientific pursuits, and their manufacture became far more refined, however there is evidence that such sophisticated use was quite a bit older.

The use of burning lenses is mentioned in several ancient Greek texts.  The likes of Aristotle, Plutarch, Hippolytus, and the playwright Aristophanes would ponder the nature of light and colour and marvel at its manipulation through glass and stone.

"STREPSIADES: Have you ever seen a beautiful, transparent stone at the druggists', with which you may kindle fire?

SOCRATES: You mean a crystal lens.

STREPSIADES: That's right. Well, now if I placed myself with this stone in the sun and a long way off from the clerk, while he was writing out the conviction, I could make all the wax, upon which the words were written, melt." -- Aristophanes, The Clouds, 419 B.C.

But the fact that crude lenses, and later, an evolving refinement of lenses, are found throughout the archaeological record in nearly every part of the world, suggests that the Greek scholars may have been a little late to the game.

It’s often said that we are children of light, and depending who says it, they may not know how right they are.  We owe our entire existence to light, or more accurately, the electromagnetic spectrum.  It nourishes us, it warms us, it powers us, and it offers a means to measure, and count, and observe our world.  Without it we would perish, or better yet we wouldn’t exist in the first place.  But it should also be said that we owe almost as much to those brilliant minds who, in a time of blind ignorance, were able to recognise the importance of lenses, and prisms, and mirrors, and eventually gave us the world we have today.

Australian Aboriginal Stories Accurately Preserve Details of the 'Flood' at the End of the Ice Age

2012 Movie Tsunami

Well this has all sorts of relevance for discussion of 'mythical' stories about lost continents such as Atlantis: a team of Australian academics say that Aboriginal stories of lost islands match up with underwater finds in Australia that were dry land at the end of the last Ice Age:

To most of us, the rush of the oceans that followed the last ice age seems like a prehistoric epoch. But the historic occasion was dutifully recorded—coast to coast—by the original inhabitants of the land Down Under.

Without using written languages, Australian tribes passed memories of life before, and during, post-glacial shoreline inundations through hundreds of generations as high-fidelity oral history. Some tribes can still point to islands that no longer exist—and provide their original names.

That’s the conclusion of linguists and a geographer, who have together identified 18 Aboriginal stories—many of which were transcribed by early settlers before the tribes that told them succumbed to murderous and disease-spreading immigrants from afar—that they say accurately described geographical features that predated the last post-ice age rising of the seas.

“It’s quite gobsmacking to think that a story could be told for 10,000 years,” Nicholas Reid, a linguist at Australia’s University of New England specializing in Aboriginal Australian languages, said. “It’s almost unimaginable that people would transmit stories about things like islands that are currently underwater accurately across 400 generations.”

For more about the flooding of the world after the last Ice Age, and how some civilisations may have disappeared on account of the rising sea levels, see Graham Hancock's book Underworld.

(hat tip: @djp1974)

Link: Ancient Sea Rise Tale Told Accurately for 10,000 Years

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Man Descends from the Sky and Lands at the Pyramids of Giza

When Pharaoh Khufu stood before his Great Pyramid 4500 years ago, I wonder if he could have imagined that in the future a flying man would descend from the heavens like a god. In order to advertise an energy drink...

...heeeeey, maybe that's the solution to the mystery of the pyramids!

I'm not saying it was Red Bull

The Greeks may have used magic to tip sports scores in their favour

You know what’s coming up this weekend, right?  I fear to type the word lest sports enthusiast descend upon us.  Everyone says they only watch it for the commercials, and I admit, that’s a big part of why I tune in too.  Of course, with the news lately, the NFL isn’t exactly drawing a loyal crowd anymore.  The players are overpaid thugs and the league officials aren’t much better.  None the less, there are always a lot of people planning to sit through the entire eight hours of coverage – not even including the game itself – beer in hand, chips, pizza and rowdy friends all within arm’s reach.

Everyone has their favourite team too, and I will refrain from taking sides here, since the fan base can be more rabid than Ancient Alien proponents.  But in the end, what really decides the outcome of the game?  Is it skill?  Teamwork?  Planning?  Sponsorships?  Performance enhancing drugs?

How much of a role does luck play in this contest?

I know, I know, your team doesn’t need luck.  But what if you could enhance your team’s chances for foisting that giant silver cup into the air?  What if you could do something more than not shaving until they win, or wearing the same socks and underwear every day of the playoffs?

In ancient Greece – the culture that gave birth to the very idea of competitive sports – they took things into their own hands…their own magic hands.

You see, some of the Greeks, superstitious as they were, took to carving elaborate magic spheres out of marble and burying them on the “playing field” so as to enhance the luck of whichever champion they were backing (and likely betting on).

A single surviving example of one of these magical spheres sits in the collection of the Acropolis Museum of Athens.  It was discovered during a dig in 1866 by archaeologist, antiquities dealer, and apparently, scoundrel, Prof Athanasios Rhousopoulos, buried in the hill just outside the temple of Dionysus.

It’s a relatively obscure bit of Greek history, but like any other aspect of their culture, it related directly to their pantheon of gods.

This particular sphere, known only as The Magic Sphere of the Museum of Athens, is ... Read More »

The Star Computer of the Ancient World - Revealing the Secrets of the Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera Mechanism (Brett Seymour / WHOI)

The Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating article on the Antikythera Mechanism by Jo Marchant, a wonderful writer on things historical. In the feature, Marchant describes the wonderful intricacy of the device, which allowed it to compute the 'celestial time'/location of a number of prominent heavenly bodies:

The Antikythera mechanism was similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time: one hand for the Sun, one for the Moon and one for each of the five planets visible to the naked eye—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. A rotating black and silver ball showed the phase of the Moon. Inscriptions explained which stars rose and set on any particular date. There were also two dial systems on the back of the case, each with a pin that followed its own spiral groove, like the needle on a record player. One of these dials was a calendar. The other showed the timing of lunar and solar eclipses.

Despite a number of the mechanism's pieces being missing, further secrets continue to be revealed. For instance, an inscription tells how coloured balls were used to represent the Sun and Mars on the front face. Other mysteries continue to be debated: perhaps most interestingly, how the device was able to represent the complex movement of the planets (which from our point of view, at different times move forward and backward through the sky when viewed on a nightly basis).

For me, another prominent mystery remains - how such a complex and useful device is so unique in the record of the ancient world. Where are the prototypes, the evolutionary forebears, of the Antikythera Mechanism? Where are its copies? After all, in modern times any piece of advanced technology quickly inspires 'knock-offs'.

Was the Antikythera Mechanism a one-off work of genius, unable to be replicated? Or does it indicate that the record of the ancient world remains woefully incomplete, and that our forebears were more technologically advanced than we have thought?

Link: Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism, the First Computer

New Full-Length Graham Hancock Video on the Upcoming 'Magician of the Gods'

As we've mentioned previously, our good friend Graham Hancock is working on a new book, Magicians of the Gods, the sequel to Fingerprints of the Gods, to be published in late 2015 or early 2016. This video of a presentation Graham gave at Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly in 2014 reviews some of the key findings in 'Fingerprints' and shares some of the new evidence of the lost civilisation that will go into 'Magicians'. (Graham also gives a short introduction to the video lecture pointing out some of the extra research he's done since this talk was given)


Ancient Maps Reveal a Thread of Truth Weaved Through Antiquity

Dulcert 1339 map

Have you ever gotten directions from a friend, to a place you’ve never been?  Of course you have; everyone has.  Which means that we’ve all been given, at some point or another, a crudely drawn map, intended to guide us along the landscape to our desired destination.

Now imagine trying to make an accurate map of an entire coast line.  Or of entire continents.  Or the whole world!  It’s a pretty massive undertaking.  The map maker doesn’t even have the benefit of ever having travelled those coastlines and country boundaries.  He or she is flying blind.  So how do they do it?

As discussed previously, mapmaking – or cartography – is a millennium old art.  People have been trying to create a visual representation of the areas in which they travel since before the 7th millennium BCE.  The oldest surviving maps are the Babylonian World Maps of the 9th century BCE, and, while beautiful, they aren’t exactly known for their accuracy (according to these maps the world consists of only Babylon on the Euphrates and Assyria).  But as time went on, mapmakers got better at creating consistently accurate drawings of their surroundings.  They developed universal systems for measuring distances, plotting directions, and estimating the shape of coastlines and continents.  Those systems are as complicated as they are useful.

But it’s not like every map ever made is truly an original work.  Most maps, especially charts out of antiquity, are reproductions or expansions of earlier maps.  Experience with a given chart would determine just how accurate it was, and once the most accurate among the available charts was found, it would then be used as the standard for the area it described.  From there, cartographers could copy it and use it as a component in a larger chart that included the region it depicted.

There are some famous charts, namely the Piri Re’is and the Dulcert 1339 map.  In both cases these are portolan charts, meaning they are nautical maps that use compass bearings as the foundation of their measurement system.  The Piri Re’is chart is widely considered to be the most accurate portolan chart of the 16th century.  It’s a military world map that was created by an Ottoman admiral and cartographer, after whom the chart was named.  It is unique in that it is the earliest chart to show accurate depictions of the coastlines of Africa, as well as the positions of several Caribbean islands, such as the Canary Islands.  It also shows an astonishingly accurate depiction of the east coast of South America, even going so far as to position the new world correctly with reference to the west coast of Africa.

It’s also thought unique for another rather compelling reason…it apparently shows an accurate depiction of the coast of Queen Maud Land.  What is Queen Maud Land, you ask?  Well, Queen Maud Land is the northern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Now, this wouldn’t be as wondrous as it is, were it not for the fact that the Antarctica Peninsula hadn’t been discovered or explored until 1820 at the earliest.  And for the fact that the coastline depicted is currently under a few hundred feet of ice.

So, um…how did an Ottoman admiral know about it, much less accurately draw it on a map in 1513, just twenty-one years following Christopher Columbus’ bumbling discovery of the Americas?

Piri Reis World Map

According to scholars, the Dulcert 1339 portolan chart (mentioned above) – which is an early Medieval chart of the Mediterranean ocean and surrounding lands, and which is thought to have been created by a classical Italian cartographer named Angelino Dulcert (known alternately as Angelino de Dalorto and/or Angelino de Dulceto) – seems to show a reasonably accurate representation of Australia, of all things.  To remind you, Australia wasn’t discovered, according to our history textbooks, until 1606, but yet, the landmass of Australia was included in this map, drawn by an Italian, and in other early European maps three hundred years before that.

How is that possible?

There are those, namely the famous Finnish-Swedish historian of cartography Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, who believe that these early maps are not of the medieval period at all, but are copies of charts from much, much older cartographic traditions.  He analysed the mathematics of these maps, and others, and came to the conclusion that their content, accuracy, and structure was notably superior to the charts of classical scholars such as Ptolemy and Eratosthenes, but that they employed the same elements in their construction.[1]

Nordenskiöld isn’t alone though, as you might imagine.  From his work has sprung strong argument, from people such as Arlington Mallery and Charles Hapgood, that these maps are evidence of an advanced culture having circumnavigated the globe long before Ferdinand Magellan.[2]  Of course, with such a fantastical claim comes the scorn of the academic community, and their criticisms are not without merit (especially when you include Erik von Daniken as an ally of Hapgood and Mallery), but none yet have fully refuted Hapgood’s nor Nordenskiöld’s analyses.

So is there a middle ground?  Can we not accept that there is more to these maps than modern cartographers want to admit, while not yet asserting that they prove the case for a pre-historic civilization?  As mentioned, maps from antiquity are almost always copies of earlier maps, enhanced and expanded, correcting the mistakes of previous generations.  Piri Re’is and Dulcert 1339 are no exception…the question is from what older maps did the Ottoman and Italian cartographers copy their greatest works?


[1] Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Facsimile-Atlas to the Early History of Cartography with Reproductions of the Most Important Maps Printed in the XV and XVI Centuries, trans. Johan Adolf Ekelöf (Stockholm, 1889; reprinted, New York: Dover, 1973).

[2] Charles H. Hapgood. Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age. Illinois 1997, Adventures Unlimited Press (Originally 1966).


Listen to the 3000-Year-Old Trumpets of King Tutankhamun

Among the treasures found when Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb was opened in 1923 were two ornate trumpets, one made of silver and the other of bronze. In 1939, BBC radio broadcast the sound of the trumpets to listeners around the world. And, thanks to the internet, now you can too. Hopefully their sound doesn't summon up any ancient Egyptian demons to enact foul curses upon those listening. Hey, wait a minute, BBC broadcast the sound in 1939...

(via @MattStaggs)

Are These Amazing Underwater Structures Evidence for a Lost Civilisation?

Graham Hancock at Yonaguni

Our good friend Graham Hancock is currently 'periscope down' in writer's terms, submerged in the first stages of writing the 'sequel' to his massive bestseller Fingerprints of the Gods, currently under the working title of Magicians of the Gods. As an early piece of provocation, however, he's released the short video below showing him submerged in a different way - at strange underwater sites that some have suggested were shaped by human hands, and which were above water during the last Ice Age.

Whether they are natural or man-made, one thing is certain - these are spectacular dive sites. For those who might want to dive them one day, the locations featured in the video are: Kerama (Aka Jima), Yonaguni, Chatan and Aguni.

Natural or man-made? You decide. (Point of information. Sea level rose just over 120 metres - 400 feet - at the end of the last Ice Age. All the structures seen here would have been above water until about 12,000 years ago).

You can learn more about Graham's work at his website, and I also suggest liking his Facebook page and/or following him on Twitter.

Evidence Mounts for Early Greek Celestial Expertise


Greek wine cup or star chart?

It is often rightly said that the birthplace of science is ancient Greece.  Our best and brightest minds today are said to be standing on the shoulders of giants.  That’s usually a nod to the humbled genius of Sir Isaac Newton who uttered something similar in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676.  Though we all know Newton was not of the humble sort.

That famous phrase, which now adorns the cover of Stephen Hawking’s anthology of classical science papers, is correctly attributed to Bernard of Chartres, a French philosopher and genius in his own right:

“We are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.”

One can certainly see why this sentiment has been adopted by those wishing to give credit (or some credit) to their predecessors.  And when it comes to the knowledge we have in the realm of science, it cannot be denied that much of it is due to the incredible insights of the classical Greek Masters.  Those masters, it seems, actually worked out more about the world in which we live, than most are currently aware.

There’s a cup, currently on display at the Lamia Archaeological Museum in Greece.  It’s not an ordinary cup by modern standards, but it wasn’t really thought to be all that special either.  It’s just an ancient, two-handled wine cup with stylized animals artfully dancing around its surface.  Of course, it has historic value, it is roughly 2,600 years old after all, but there are better examples of Greek pottery on display in that same museum.

This thinking has just taken a drastic detour though…

This cup, the style of which is known as a skyphos, is currently being studied with great interest, as a possible origin, or at least one of the first known stellar calendars.  Up until recently, this particular cup was thought to depict simple, random animals frolicking around the rim, but new analysis by John Barnes, a classical archaeology doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, suggests that it may in fact be much more than that.

Barnes recently spoke with Live Science magazine and offered an enticing look at his research.  He says that the animals seen on this cup are actually fairly accurate depictions of constellations, showing a progression over the period of perhaps an entire year.  According to Barnes, it’s unlikely to be an actual star chart or celestial calendar, and is probably more of an attempt to represent time in a more general way, using constellations as the foundation.

This is perhaps not immediately as impressive to you as it is to others, since we’ve long thought the Greeks famous for their celestial knowledge base, and in fact most of today’s known constellations were named in the classical Greek period.  If correct in his conclusions, which have been published in the science journal Hesperia[1], Barnes claims that the impact would be revolutionary, simply because it may mean that many other examples of pottery and Greek art that have previously been thought to have only random or simple stylizations, are in fact examples of the earliest star charts in the history of mankind.

"If we go back and re-evaluate other animal scenes that might have been originally categorized as hunting scenes or animal friezes, then maybe we can find more [depictions of constellations] and get a greater understanding of how the ancient Greeks viewed the night sky," Barnes told Live Science.

Antykithera Mechanism

This is an incredible insight, but in light of other recent realisations about Ancient Greek artefacts, it brings an even larger issue further into focus.

A study recently conducted by researchers from the National University of Quilmes (Argentina), has caused quite a stir in the archaeological, historical, and fringe science circles.  This study focuses on the origin and construction of the famed Antykithera Mechanism[2].

Called, by some, the first computer in existence, the Antykithera Mechanism is an enigma.  First found in an ocean wreck off the coast of the small island of Antykithera (hence the name), it sat unexamined in a drawer in the same museum in which the above skyphos is on display.  No one had any idea how important this strange artefact is to our understanding of history.

Once it was rediscovered – so to speak – and analysis began, researchers found that it is in fact a highly complex machine, with gears and dials and delicate inscriptions that seem to match up with star alignments.  This led everyone (or nearly everyone) to believe that it’s an ancient sextant or star map.  The problem is that it’s been dated, through radiometric decay measurements, to have originated around 100-150 BCE.  That, in and of itself, was a problem, as it was believed that no one of that era could have conceived of, much less built such a device.

The idea that it had some purpose related to using the stars for navigation at sea, has slowly come to be accepted as fact, or as close to fact as we can get.  Until, that is, this new research threw all the accepted knowledge out the window.

The Argentinian researchers have been scouring the device for clues as to its origin and age, and they struck upon an incredible bit of information.  It seems that a dial on the back of the artefact contains an inscription that clearly corresponds to a solar eclipse that we know happened on May 12, 205 BCE, easily 100 years earlier than previously thought possible.  That alone tells us that whoever made it had not only the technical skill to create something so mechanically advanced that nothing like it was seen for at least another 500-1000 years, but they also had celestial knowledge that is far more advanced than anything known in the the entirety of Greek antiquity.

Unless, of course, we consider John Barnes ideas about the skyphos.  When we do that, it seems plausible that what we think we know about Greek celestial knowledge amounts to jack…well you know.

These findings, both of which are still under a great deal of scrutiny, could ultimately lead to a complete reorganising of our understanding of not only what the Greeks knew, but when they knew it and what they did with it.

Exciting things are on the horizon.


[1] Barnes, John T. Asteras Eipein: An Archaic View of the Constellations from Halai.  Hesperia (2014), Volume 83, Issue 2.  Page(s): 257-276 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2972/hesperia.83.2.0257

[2] Carman, Christián C.; Evans, James. On the epoch of the Antikythera mechanism and its eclipse predictor. Archive for History of Exact Sciences November 2014, Volume 68, Issue 6, pp 693-774 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00407-014-0145-5