Brain Pickings

The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story of Humanity’s Oldest Analog Computer, circa 150 B.C.

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30 gear wheels of anachronism, or what a 2,000-year-old shipwreck reveals about the evolution of technology.

On their way back to Greece from Africa in October 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kontos and his crew of sponge divers encountered a severe storm, so they decided to wait it out on the small island of Antikythera. To pass the time, they set out to dive for sponges off the island’s coast. The first of them, Elias Stadiatos, had barely submerged 60 meters when he laid eyes on a striking sight — a heap of human and horse corpses lying on the sea bed. He rushed frantically to the surface and reported what he had seen. Kontos, suspecting carbon dioxide may have caused his fellow to hallucinate, dove into the water himself and soon resurfaced with the bronze arm of a statue. Over the two years that followed, Greek sponge divers and archaeologists recovered multiple artifacts from the shipwreck, estimated to have sunk some 2,000 years prior.

In 1902, however, archaeologist Valerious Stais made the most momentous discovery of all, and he did so from the dry safety of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — embedded in one of the pieces of rock, he noticed a discernible gear wheel. Nicknamed the Antikythera mechanism, this object became known as humanity’s oldest analog computer — an ancient mechanical device designed to calculate astronomical positions. Some scholars have even prized its historic value higher than the Mona Lisa’s.

In Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets, Jo Marchant tells for the first time the fascinating story of an obsessive quest to unravel the mystery of this ancient clue that could rewrite the history of technology. It’s a story about unsung heroes, raging egomaniacs, and death-defying treasure hunts, told with a scholar’s scientific rigor and a storyteller’s penchant for intrigue.

The Antikythera mechanism’s fragments are now known to contain some 30 gear wheels, with instructional inscriptions scribbled on every surface. But what makes the discovery most extraordinary is its seeming anachronism — a curious fold in the space-time continuum of technological history. Marchant observes:

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.”

More than an archaeological curiosity, its mystery — which took more than a century to decode — fundamentally challenges our knowledge not only about what the Ancient Greeks were and what they were capable of, but also about the timescale on which technology evolved as humanity grappled with ordering the heavens and understanding time.

Thanks, Mark

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The Joy of Books: A Stop-Motion Rainbow Intervention

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If you, like me, are a lover of books, you’ll find yourself enamored with this husband-and-wife duo’s imaginative stop-motion reconfiguration of the bookshelves in Toronto’s Type bookstore — the best thing since Spike Jonze’s stop-motion love story for book lovers.

Some of my favorite books make cameos in the film — French illustrator Blexbolex’s People, the vibrant PANTONE: The Twentieth Century in Color, Christoph Niemann’s relentlessly delightful I LEGO N.Y., Brooke Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine, a graphic novel guide to the media, and 1493, the untold story of how Columbus changed the world.

Last July, the duo warmed up by giving their home bookcase the stop-motion rainbow treatment:

(One thing that’s always drawn me to stop-motion as a storytelling medium, particularly such labor-intensive executions, is the peculiar, paradoxical way in which it bends our relationship with time, at once compressing its scale and making its passage all the more palpable.)

Where to next? Try some inspired bookshelf designs, or the bookcases of famous authors.

Thanks, Alex

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Einstein, Anne Lamott, and Steve Jobs on Intuition vs. Rationality

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What the libraries of yore have to do with today’s information economy and the heart’s will.

In putting together this recent reading list of nine essential books on reading and writing — a master-toolkit for a worthy New Year’s resolution to read more and write better — I found myself rereading Anne Lamott‘s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, one of my all-time favorite books.

A particular passage from it has stayed with me over the years, and reemerges by some uncanny, invisible mechanism at critical times of my life, as if to remind me where the truth lies:

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

A similar sentiment is attributed to, though likely a paraphrasing of, one of history’s most celebrated heroes of science — the alleged pinnacle of rationality, Albert Einstein:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

Steve Jobs reflects in Walter Isaacson’s much-discussed biography of him, one of the best biographies and memoirs of 2011:

The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world… Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic, it is learned and it is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

In the olden days, librarians were expected to use intuition to categorize books. When did we lose this value system in how we think about the categorization — curation, systematization, organization — of today’s information sphere and, perhaps more importantly, of the heart’s sphere?

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