IT helps solve mystery of ancient calculator

High-tech research project to reveal the mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism

Results of a high-tech research project to be released next week promise to finally unravel much of the remaining mystery of a 2,000-year-old astronomical calculator.

Since its discovery in 1902, the Antikythera Mechanism -- with its intricate and baffling system of about 30 geared wheels -- has been an enigma. Our knowledge of its functions has increased as computer-based imaging, analysis and X-ray technologies have evolved. During the last 50 years, researchers have identified various astronomical and calendar functions, including gears that mimic the movement of the sun and moon.

But it has taken some of the most advanced technology of the 21st century to decipher during the past year the most advanced technology of the 1st century B.C.

No artifact this complex has been recovered from the ancient world, though there are numerous written references, by Greek and later by Arab writers, to different types of geared mechanisms. The level of mechanical sophistication found in the Antikythera Mechanism was not to be seen again until the rise of European clock-making during the Middle Ages, more than a millennium later.

Revealing the results

An international team of researchers will reveal the results of this most recent research, carried out over the past year with help from HP Laboratories and X-Tek Systems, a U.K.-based manufacturer of high resolution X-ray inspection equipment. The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project , a joint effort by researchers in Greece and the United Kingdom, hosts a two-day conference starting Nov. 30 in Athens.

The team includes astrophysicists, radio astronomers, mathematicians and philologists (philology is the study of ancient texts and original documents), reflecting the complexity of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Team members wouldn't comment beforehand on the details. But they are confident they've unraveled many of the remaining puzzles.

"We believe we've found the functions with regard to the sun and moon movements, and to its calendrical function," says Michael Edmunds, a professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University in Wales, and a specialist in the chemical composition of galaxies. The Mechanism caught his interest when he was working in 2000 with a student who chose the device as a research project.

"We believe we [now] understand what the gear trains did," Edmunds says. Other advances include definitive tooth counts, and new details of gears and their assemblies.

In addition, the team more than doubled the number of letters previously found on the device, to more than2,000, and has translated these, says John Seiradakis, a professor with the Department of Physics, Aristolean University of Thessaloniki, in Greece.

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