Number 869, August 15, 2008 by Phillip F. Schewe, James Dawson, and Jason Bardi
Olympic Bronze Metal
Antiquity’s most sophisticated technology tracked the Olympic games along with celestial events. The four-year wait between each set of competitions in the modern Olympics is based on the original four-year cycle of games in ancient Greece. A research paper in Nature magazine now links an ancient device known for tracking and predicting celestial events- to the original quadrennial observance of the games.
Called the Antikythera Mechanism, this device is a bronze machine built around the first or second century B.C. Possibly the most advanced ancient scientific device, it was fished out of the sea in 1901. Because of its state of disrepair, the mechanism has not revealed its secrets easily. About the size of a small shoebox in its original form, the device fell into a number of fragments after it was recovered. Since then computer simulations have been run and brass models constructed to recreate what it would have looked like.. With the help of sophisticated x-ray techniques, more than 2500 characters have now been read.
The mechanism is not just a book of ancient secrets like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s a machine consisting of numerous swiveling dials and turning gears. It is often considered as the first analog computer since it accepts input and provides output. Ancient astronomers could enter the current positions of the stars and planets, and the Antikythera would predict upcoming equinoxes (when the length of the day equals the length of night) and solar eclipses (when the sun is covered up by the Moon).
Now, in the July 31, 2008 issue of the journal Nature, a research team reports two surprising discoveries. The first is a new interpretation of one of the dials in the machine as being associated with the Olympiad games held every four years. The Greeks didn’t need a machine to tell them when to hold the games, but the dial was there anyway, says team member Tony Freeth, because of the importance of the games, so important that many other calendars were pegged to the event, much as historical events were often calibrated to the reigns of various kings.
The other intriguing finding was the realization that the month names inscribed on the dials are of Corinthian origin. Corinth is a city in Greece situated on a strategic isthmus. The old thinking was that the mechanism had originated towards the easterly end of Greek influence, perhaps on the island of Rhodes. But the new interpretation suggests that the machine was made in Corinth or in one of its colonies, which lay to the west, such as Sicily. These westerly Greek settlements are sometimes referred to as “Greece’s America” since, like Britain’s colonies over the Atlantic, they represented a reformulation of homeland culture across a westward sea.
Many ancient devices devoted to celestial objects have as their function the important task of coordinating events in the sky with those on earth, such as the planting of crops or the crowning of kings. Probably the most important astronomical calculation is determining the duration of a year. In 1974 one of the dials on the Antikythera Mechanism was identified with the “Metonic” calendar. This is named for a fifth-century-B.C. Athenian astronomer, Meton, who formulated a calendar convention which married lunar timekeeping (the cycle of the moon takes a bit more than 29 days to complete) and solar timekeeping (the sun takes about 365 and a quarter days to come to the same place in the sky again). Meton's compromise calendar assimilates both the lunar and the solar views into a 19-year cycle.
More recently, in 2006, the research team working on the mechanism was able to deduce, from another dial, a method for predicting solar eclipses. What kind of ensemble does it take to make this sort of discovery? Well, so far the team has included mathematicians, astronomers, physicists, historians, and philologists (those who study words).
Freeth says that although the mechanism was probably built well after the lifetime of Archimedes (c225 B.C.), it is tempting to think that the device came out of one of the Sicilian workshops (known for their bronze instruments) influenced by Archimedes, regarded by many as the greatest scientist of the ancient world.
Formerly a mathematician and television producer and now a research scientist, Freeth intends to return to TV production with a documentary about the Antikythera Mechanism.
Maybe We Are Special, The Solar System Says
Historically, humans have often felt the need to be special, and just as often have been disappointed. The Earth, as it turned out, wasn't at the center of the universe. Humans are smart, but in the end, they evolve, live and die just like all the other living things on the planet. In astronomy, the prevailing theoretical models of how the solar system got here have assume that, based on past experience, we're probably just an average solar system.
But according to a new study by Northwestern University astronomers looking at 300 planets orbiting other stars, we might really be special. "We now know that these other planetary systems don't look like [our] solar system at all," said Frederic Rasio, an astronomer at Northwestern, in Chicago. Computer simulations used by Rasio's team showed that the birth of a planetary system is a very violent affair, with the gas disk that gives birth to the planets pushing them toward the central star, where they often crowd together to be engulfed. Gravitational encounters between growing planets fling some across the planetary system, or into deep space. "Such a turbulent history would seem to leave little room for the sedate solar system, and our simulations show exactly that," said Rasio in a news release from Northwestern University. Our solar system "had to be born under just the right conditions to become the quiet place we see," he said. "The vast majority of other planetary systems didn't have these special properties at birth and became something very different."
Hubble's Odometer Nearing 3 Billion Miles
The Hubble Space Telescope, viewed by many scientists as perhaps the most valuable scientific instrument ever developed, is about to complete its 100,000th orbit of the Earth, which will bring its total mileage to 2.72 billion miles. The HST was launched on April 24, 1990, and has been sailing through space about 380 miles overhead at a pace of just less than five miles per second ever since. In celebration of the 100,000 orbit mark, which happened at 7:42 a.m. EDT on August 11, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore calculated that 2.72 billion miles is the equivalent of 5,700 round trips to the moon. It is also, according to STSI, the number of miles that will be driven by vehicles in the U.S. every three hours. The Hubble, they note, uses gravity, not fuel, to move through space.
While bulking up with steroids is a well-known practice among some athletes, a new drug developed to treat a metabolic disease has also given exercising mice the ability to run up to an hour longer, which is a lot in mouse time. "When we gave the mice a small amount of daily exercise in the presence or not of the drug, all showed an increased ability to run," said Ronald Evans, a researcher with the Salk Institute.
Once the mice had trained, Evans gave some of them the drug, known as GW1516, and discovered the drug mice kept on running. In what Evans called the "couch potato" experiment, the researchers also discovered that treating the mice with yet another drug gave even non-exercising mice greater endurance when they hit the track. "It's tricking the muscle into 'believing' it's been exercised daily," he said. "It proves you can have a pharmacologic equivalent to exercise." He noted that the drugs could be a boon to people who can't exercise due to health problems, but also have a "high potential for abuse" by athletes.
Electric Wine Tasting
Scientists in Spain have developed an "electronic tongue" designed to distinguish a good Pinot Noir from a cheap Chablis. The "e-tongue" is designed for wine quality control in the field and is based on tiny synthetic membranes on a silicone chip. The device, developed at the Barcelona Institute of Microelectronics, can distinguish between four grape varieties and its developers are working to extend its ability. Cecilia Jimenez-Jorquera said the device is similar to the human tongue in that it is sensitive to five different tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, acidic and umami (savory). The e-tongue can determine the age and variety of wine, and eventually might be able to "detect frauds committed regarding the vintage year of the wine, or the grape varieties used."
In Update 868 we referred to MRI as “medical resonance imaging,” which gives away to medical science. The acronym more properly stands for “Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” which itself is a euphemism for imaging based on nuclear magnetic resonance. Also in the polar bear story an audio frequency referred to as 20 kilohertz should have been 20 hertz.