Decoding the Heavens

July 1, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Posted in History, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

Decoding the Heavens, by Jo Marchant, has everything I love in a non-fiction book.  It’s fascinating, fast-paced, peopled with memorable characters, and it even includes a mystery.

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The topic is the Antikythera mechanism, one of those classic “unsolved mysteries” that conspiracy theorists eat up with a spoon.  I’d read about the device before but knew very little about its provenance.  Imagine my excitement when this book came along!  It delivered beyond my expectations.

The Antikythera mechanism is a geared device found in a shipwreck, from what was evidently the first successful underwater archaeological dig.  What’s amazing about it is that from the existing historical record, geared technology should not have been available until many centuries later.  How this device got there and what purpose it could have served are questions that have racked many a fine mind.  Thankfully, Jo Marchant is here to help ease our curiosity.

My degree is in history, and I studied Greek and Latin.  In all the classical history courses I took, the Antikythera mechanism was never mentioned.  I have a penchant for anomalies and unexplained findings, partly because mainstream educational institutions seem to gloss over them.  It is a fine thing whenever someone undertakes a scholarly investigation of a topic that has often been treated dismissively or skeptically.  Decoding the Heavens is truly a welcome read.


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  1. Hi there. I’ve read this book too, and the thing that’s missing is accuracy. It’s riddled with errors about the mechanism, the people, the research, the astronomy, the history… I forget what else. Take a look at the website for the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (the group the book calls Tony Freeth’s team). They have a commentary on the book which points out some of the mistakes. I helped prepare 11 pages of comments from another perspective which are at present with the publisher.

    Marchant is an experienced journalist and I agree that the book is very readable. I would have accepted it at face value, except that I was friends for 20 years with the Australian academic mentioned in the book. I knew the book was wrong in many details of his part in the story and grotesquely wrong about the kind of person he was. The further I looked the more mistakes I found, and I now regard the book as wholly unreliable.

    It’s a pity. The mechanism is interesting in its own right and its examination and interpretation are showing all sorts of ideas about the ancient world in a new light. I think this book was rushed; the research isn’t yet matured enough to be absorbed by a non-specialist writer and simplified for non-specialist readers.

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