NOV. 24, 2014
Solving the Riddles of an Early Astronomical Calculator
A riddle for the ages may be a small step closer to a solution: Who made the famed Antikythera Mechanism, the astronomical calculator that was raised from an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901?
The complex clocklike assembly of bronze gears and display dials predates other known examples of similar technology by more than 1,000 years. It accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses, as well as solar, lunar and planetary positions.
Part of the Antikythera Mechanism, above, an astronomical calculator raised from a shipwreck in 1901. Credit Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press
For good measure, the mechanism also tracked the dates of the Olympic Games. Although it was not programmable in the modern sense, some have called it the first analog computer.
Archaeologists and historians have long debated where the device was built, and by whom. Given its sophistication, some experts believe it must have been influenced, at least, by one of a small pantheon of legendary Greek scientists — perhaps Archimedes, Hipparchus or Posidonius.
Astrological clock at Venice
20 July 2011
Now a new analysis of the dial used to predict eclipses, which is set on the back of the mechanism, provides yet another clue to one of history’s most intriguing puzzles. Christián C. Carman, a science historian at the National University of Quilmes in Argentina, and James Evans, a physicist at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, suggest that the calendar of the mysterious device began in 205 B.C., just seven years after Archimedes died.
The mechanism was most likely housed in a wooden box and operated by a hand crank. The device itself bears inscriptions on the front and back. In the 1970s, the engravings were estimated to date from 87 B.C. But more recently, scientists examining the forms of the Greek letters in the inscriptions dated the mechanism to 150 to 100 B.C.
Writing this month in the journal Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Dr. Carman and Dr. Evans took a different tack. Starting with the ways the device’s eclipse patterns fit Babylonian eclipse records, the two scientists used a process of elimination to reach a conclusion that the “epoch date,” or starting point, of the Antikythera Mechanism’s calendar was 50 years to a century earlier than had been generally believed.
Kryptos, a sculpture at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., in 2010.
The last of four messages embedded in Kryptos has baffled code breakers since the work went up in 1990. The sculptor, Jim Sanborn, gave a six-letter clue (“Berlin”) in 2010, but it did not lead to a solution. So he has offered another hint, this one five letters (“Clock”). “I figured maybe I should be a little more specific,” he said.
Sculptor Offers Another Clue in 24-Year-Old Mystery at C.I.A. NOV. 20, 2014
The artist who created the enigmatic Kryptos, a puzzle-in-a-sculpture that has driven code breakers to distraction since it was installed 24 years ago in a courtyard at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., has decided that it is time for a new clue.
By 1999, nine years after it went up, Kryptos fans had deciphered three of the sculpture’s four messages — 865 letters punched through elegantly curved copper sheets that make up the most striking part of the work. (In fact, cryptographers at the National Security Agency cracked those messages in 1993, but kept the triumph to themselves.) The fourth and final passage, a mere 97 characters long, has thwarted thousands of followers ever since.
Jim Sanborn, the sculptor, having grown impatient with the progress of the fans and their incessant prodding for clues — and the misguided insistence by some that they had actually solved the puzzle — provided a six-letter clue to the puzzle in 2010. The 64th through 69th characters of the final panel, when deciphered, spelled out the word BERLIN.
The finding supports the idea, scientists said, that the mechanism’s eclipse prediction strategy was not based on Greek trigonometry, which did not exist at the time, but on Babylonian arithmetical methods borrowed by the Greeks.
Since then, the fans, many of whom keep up a lively online conversation, have come up empty-handed. And so Mr. Sanborn has decided to open the door a bit more with five additional letters, those in the 70th through 74th position.
They spell “clock.”
This means that the letters from positions 64 to 74 spell out two words: “Berlin clock.”
As it happens, there is a famous public timepiece known as the “Berlin clock,” a puzzle in itself that tells time through application of set theory. Its 24 lights count off the hours and minutes in rows and boxes, with hours in the top two rows and minutes in the two below.
When asked whether his new clue was a reference to this Berlin clock, Mr. Sanborn, sounding pleased, said, “There are several really interesting clocks in Berlin.”
He added, “You’d better delve into that particular clock,” a favorite of conspiracy theorists because of the mysterious death in 1991 of its designer, Dieter Binninger. With all the intriguing timekeepers in the city, including the “Clock of Flowing Time,” Mr. Sanborn said, “There’s a lot of fodder there.”
Divulging the clue “Berlin,” he said, led to “a tsunami” of entries that went off in every direction, including many “frivolous or debasing or hostile entries,” as well as messages from Nazi enthusiasts.
The crush of people claiming to have solved the final puzzle, reached through a website Mr. Sanborn set up in 2010, had grown to be such a distraction that he set up a barrier to entry.
Two years ago, he instituted a $50 fee (via Western Union) for anyone wanting to test a possible solution; the fee guaranteed “an exchange of no more than two back-and-forth-emails,” and no additional clues. If Mr. Sanborn did not wish to respond to the entry, he said, he would return the money.
“It really worked very well,” he said. Although he has not made much money, Mr. Sanborn said that was not the idea: “It’s made it manageable.”
But still, no solution. So Mr. Sanborn, now 69, said, “I figured maybe I should be a little more specific.”
He was designing the project, he further explained, when the Berlin Wall fell, and “there’s no doubt I was influenced by all that going on simultaneously.” With the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall, he said, he thought it was worth returning to the topic.
The news will undoubtedly scramble the thousands of people around the world who have tried to decrypt Mr. Sanborn’s brainchild, especially the members of a Yahoo group devoted to the sculpture. They meet every now and then in the real world with a dinner in the Washington area; Mr. Sanborn has attended, as have N.S.A. employees.
That community keeps up a steady stream of chatter about possible solutions, and is roughly divided between those who are called the “O.S.C.s,” for Old School Cryptographers, and “Brownies,” for devotees of the thriller author Dan Brown, who has mentioned Kryptos in his work.
Edward M. Scheidt, a retired chairman of the Central Intelligence Agency’s cryptographic center, worked with Mr. Sanborn to devise the cryptographic schemes he incorporated into the artwork. Mr. Scheidt, reached in Herndon, Va., at the encryption company TecSec, which he co-founded, said he would not have expected to find people still banging their heads against Kryptos so many years later.
“No, not really,” Mr. Scheidt said with a chuckle. “But a technique that I used obviously worked.”
A digital image of the surface inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism.
Over the years scientists have speculated that the mechanism might have been somehow linked to Archimedes, one of history’s most famous mathematicians and inventors. In 2008, a group of researchers reported that language inscribed on the device suggested it had been manufactured in Corinth or in Syracuse, where Archimedes lived.
But Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier in 212 B.C., while the commercial grain ship carrying the mechanism is believed to have sunk sometime between 85 and 60 B.C. The new finding suggests the device may have been old at the time of the shipwreck, but the connection to Archimedes now seems even less likely.
An inscription on a small dial used to date the Olympic Games refers to an athletic competition that was held in Rhodes, according to research by Paul Iversen, a Greek scholar at Case Western Reserve University.
“If we were all taking bets about where it was made, I think I would bet what most people would bet, in Rhodes,” said Alexander Jones, a specialist in the history of ancient mathematical sciences at New York University.
Dr. Evans said he remained cautious about attempting to identify the maker at all.
“We know so little about ancient Greek astronomy,” he said. “Only small fragments of work have survived. It’s probably safer not to try to hang it on any one particular famous person.”
Since new information began to emerge about the Antikythera Mechanism in 2006, it has been the source of several books, replicas and computer simulations, even a Lego model. A growing research community of Greek scholars, archaeologists, astronomers and historians is chasing its secrets.
Last fall, an expedition led by Woods Hole and Greek government scientists began the first systematic, scientific investigation of the site of the shipwreck where the mechanism was found. The dive was shortened to just five days because of bad weather, but the scientists plan to return next spring.
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