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

News Briefs 27-01-2015

The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.

Quote of the Day:

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

Martin Luther

Why Animals (Including Humans) Use Psychoactive Plants

Teniers Smoking Monkeys

Over at Boing Boing, Johann Hari (Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs) writes about drug use in the animal kingdom - and by extension, in human society. He begins by discussing the work of Professor Ronald Siegel:

As a young scientific researcher, Siegel had been confidently told by his supervisor that humans were the only species that seek out drugs to use for their own pleasure. But Siegel had seen cats lunging at catnip — which, he knew, contains chemicals that mimic the pheromones in a male tomcat’s pee —so, he wondered, could his supervisor really be right? Given the number of species in the world, aren’t there others who want to get high, or stoned, or drunk?

This question set him on a path that would take twenty-five years of his life, studying the drug-taking habits of animals from the mongooses of Hawaii to the elephants of South Africa to the grasshoppers of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. It was such an implausible mission that in one marijuana field in Hawaii, he was taken hostage by the local drug dealers, because when he told them he was there to see what happened when mongooses ate marijuana, they thought it was the worst police cover story they had ever heard.

Here at the Grail we've also previously posted about jaguars tripping on harmine and reindeer eating magic mushrooms. In his fantastic book High Society: Mind-altering drugs in history and culture, Mike Jay also notes that human drug use may have been, in some cases, inspired by other animals:

In many human cultures, the origin stories of plant-derived drugs involve tales of people observing and copying the habits of animals. In Ethiopia, for example, the discovery of coffee is attributed to goatherders who observerd their flock becoming frisky and high-spirited after consuming coffee beans. Goats are very fond of coffee, and modern plantations must be robustly fenced against them; their taste for the effects of caffeine may have prompted the plant, which spreads it seeds via animal droppings, to produce it. Theirs is a long-standing symbiosis, though human participation in the cycle is relatively new.

(For more on the beginnings of psychoactive drug use by humans, take a look at Paul Devereux's The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia*)

Both Johann Hari and Mike Jay also note another aspect of drug use in animals - that it is often closely related to their environment, and sometimes with trauma being suffered. Hari notes that in Vietnam, "the water buffalo have always shunned the local opium plants. They don’t like them. But when the American bombs started to fall all around them during the war, the buffalo left their normal grazing grounds, broke into the opium fields, and began to chew." In Professor Siegel's research, a mongoose avoided the hallucinogenic silver morning glory in its pen until its mate died in a storm. And Mike Jay cites the research of addiction psychologist Bruce Alexander, in which rats taken out of cages and given a pleasant environment to live in reduced their intake of a supplied morphine solution to 1/20th that of their caged neighbours.

In all, Jay concludes:

Such experiments do not disprove the claim that animals take drugs for their chemical rewards, but they do indicate that the impulse to take drugs is more than a simple behavioural reflex. In humans, of course, the variables become far more complicated. Sensory pleasure is an obvious component of most drug use, though the definitions of pleasure are as varied as human culture itself. But some drugs offer strictly functional benefits. The ability to alter consciousness in dramatic but controllable ways has many uses, and there is much evidence to suggest that humans have long used such drugs instrumentally: even, in some cases, elaborating their entire social systems around the heightened states of consciousness such substances produce.

Link: Why animals eat psychoactive plants

Book: High Society: Mind-altering drugs in history and culture

(* Full disclosure: The Long Trip is printed by Daily Grail Publishing)

Related stories:

News Briefs 26-01-2014

Revised guidelines...

Thanks to @UnlikelyWorlds and @AnomalistNews.

Quote of the Day:

Those of us who are old enough to remember the first half of the 'UFO era' have the definite perception that the public discussion of the topic has devolved. As a society, we are collectively stupider on this subject than we were a generation ago.

Larry Lemke

Uplifting Civilisation into the 22nd Century...and Beyond!

HENRi is an emotionally powerful short film, which explores human existence at the most fundamental, personal level—what it means to be a conscious individual.

Hundreds of years in the future, a derelict spacecraft, controlled and powered by a human brain, floats aimlessly in the outer reaches of space. HENRI, the name of the ship's power system, is an acronym which stands for Hybrid Electronic / Neuron Responsive Intelligence, and was the first of Earth’s Neuro-Tech space exploration research vessels. Trapped in the cold, mechanical prison of the vessel, the “brain,” which has no recollection or concept of self, gradually begins to experience disjointed images of its former life—images it cannot understand. Carrying the remains of a crew long dead, and becoming increasingly self-aware, HENRI experiences the instinctual desire to be free. Yearning for freedom and yet unable to move, the brain devises a plan to build itself a mechanical body from parts of the ship. Maybe then it will understand the images it is seeing—maybe then it will feel alive.

This twenty minute and change short film will bring all the feels if you've developed any empathy for the machines. Perhaps, like me, you are longing for the arrival of a proper Culture universe, as written of by the great prophet, Iain M. Banks. Maybe you've long internalised the directive that “the only way out is through”; that there is no Rise of the Machines style apocalyptic scenario coming, only the next stage in the hominid line's continual coevolution with its tools.

If you're like me, these are the things that come to mind when watching this short. That it, along with other great recent online videos, Wanderers and Ambition, serve as recruitment material for the Great Extropian Adventure, just as Silent Running was said to have been the unofficial video for Earth First! back in the 1970s. A vision to help chart a course through the current extinction crisis towards a twenty-second century full of sentient beings in space; a living universe populated with the physical and virtual, human, machine and animal, and multiple combinations of them all. And that's just for starters. Science only knows what comes after that. Which might seem like quite a burden to place on what's really just one person's high concept Foundation universe fan-fic.

Let's assume by this point you've watched the short film. A properly observant and literate sci-fi fan will note this video features several elements that suggest ... Read More »

A Dwarf and a Giant in One Lifetime

Adam Rainer

A fascinating post over at The Chirurgeon's Apprentice on Adam Rainer, the only man in history to be classified as both a dwarf as well as a giant:

Adam Rainer was born in Graz, Austria to average-sized parents in 1899. When WW1 broke out, Rainer tried to enlist in the army, but at 4’6.3’’ inches tall, he was deemed too short and weak. A year later, Rainer tried again, and although he had grown a full 2 inches, the army rejected him once more on the basis of his height. Standing 4’8.3’’ inches tall at the age of 19, Rainer was considered a dwarf, being nearly 2 inches below the cut-off (4’10’’).

...At the age of 21, all this changed. Rainer suddenly began growing at an alarming pace. Over the next decade, he grew from just under 4’10’’ to a shocking 7’1". He died, aged 51, measuring 7’8" – though some newspapers reported his height as 7’10”.

Link: World’s Littlest Giant: The Curious Case of Adam Rainer

The Enduring Mystery of the Naga Fireballs

Naga Fireballs

Dragon fire, swamp gas, earth lights or human hoaxing? The Naga fireballs - mysterious lights that rise from the Mekong river in Thailand in late October each year - remain a hotly debated area of Forteana. Unfortunately, the actual history of the phenomenon remains shrouded in doubt, and the huge festival (and accompanying fireworks) that surrounds the yearly manifestation of the fireballs makes it difficult to study it in any great detail.

Australian ufologist Bill Chalker attended the Naga Fireball festival in 2006, and on his blog he's recently posted some of his thoughts as well as some videos he took during his visit:

I went to Nong Khai and Phon Phisai where the spectacular Naga light fireball festival was in full swing on the Mekong river looking towards Laos. I was in Phon Phisai on Saturday night October 7 for the anticipated fireball display. The human part of the light show - fireworks, rockets, large fire balloons, fireboats etc - was in great evidence, but when the Naga fireballs started emerging, they were strikingly different to the easily discernible human displays - very straight vertical flights out of river to a great height and then disappearing after a few seconds. Each appearance was greeted with a huge roar from the thousands of people lining the river at every vantage point along the Mekong.

This phenomenon has a tremendous social and human dimension and while it is tempting to try to explain the lights, however correctly or incorrectly- planted "rockets", "submarine" firings, Naga Dragon speaking - they all seem to fall short of entirely convincing explanations. The UFO researcher in me calls for an explanation, and I have to wonder about the presence of the manned fireboats plying the river prior to the appearance of the Naga lights, but from my observations it seems difficult to see how they do it and what kind of item is utilised, given nothing seemed to be at the localities around the various exit points in the river for some time either side of each Naga light appearance. The emotional response to these lights on site is to inevitably get caught up in the chaotic flow of the evening events. It is easy to get caught up in the moment and loose objectivity. Perhaps thats why they write books like "Mad about the Mekong". It is a great area full of extraordinary sights and experience, not the least of them being the Naga Light show during the full moon glow over the river.

I saw the lights about 8 times coming out of the river. It was a great day and night.

Visit Bill's blog The Oz Files to view all of the videos and his thoughts on the phenomenon.

Link: The Mystery and Allure of the Naga Light Festival

News Briefs 23-01-2015

"Every experiment destroys some of the knowledge of the system which was obtained by previous experiments."

Quote of the Day:

“Light and matter are both single entities, and the apparent duality arises in the limitations of our language.”

W. Heisenberg

News Briefs 22-01-2015

If you think you know what the hell is going on...

Thanks to @MattStaggs, @elakdawalla and @UnlikelyWorlds.

Quote of the Day:

The things you own end up owning you.

Tyler Durden (Fight Club)