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Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest


The Antikythera Mechanism and Abstract Thought

Scientific discovery and invention is amazing, but dead, without abstract thought

Published: Thursday, July 6, 2017 - 11:03

More than 2,000 years ago a huge ship crashed beneath the cliffs of Antikythera, a small island off the coast of Greece. Later discovered in 1900, the wreck yielded a trove of antiquities, including an amazing geared mechanism that, just for starters, predicted eclipses and the location of the sun and moon and possibly planets, showed the phase of the moon, and tracked the four-year cycle of athletic games.

Consisting of more than 30 bronze gears, including a pin and slot mechanism that allowed the accurate reproduction of eccentric orbits, the Antikythera mechanism was certainly the most advanced calculating device of its time. So why didn’t we discover any mechanisms even remotely as complicated for another 1,000 years? It isn’t until the early- to mid-1300s and Giovanni de Dondi’s planetarium-clock or Richard Wallingford’s St. Albans clock, that we see equal complexity. One would think that such an amazing device as the Antikythera mechanism would have spawned a revolution in clockworks. Certainly that is what we see in today’s innovations—one amazing invention leads to embellishments and spinoffs on that invention. But here, nothing for 1,000 years.

Virtual reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism. You can read more about the Antikythera Mechanism at The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project website.

Perhaps we just haven’t uncovered those in-between pieces. After all, anything made of bronze was constantly being melted down and used for something else. The problem with that theory is that if discovery and invention had continued during the intervening years between 150 BC and the mid-1300s, those later clockworks should have reflected a millennia’s worth of technological advancement. But they don’t. Other than more refined workmanship perhaps, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about de Dondi’s or Wallingford’s inventions compared to the Antikythera mechanism... other than they weren’t hand-driven... which is a critical distinction that we will get to.

The answer to the apparent dormancy may lie in the value of abstract thought as a driver for innovation.

I think former Nature editor Jo Marchant may have gotten hints of this in her 2006 article, “In Search of Lost Time.” In interviews with Serafina Cuomo, a historian of science at Imperial College, and Bert Hall, a science historian at the University of Toronto in Canada, Marchant teases out two ideas. First, according to Cuomo, the Greeks had no real reason to advance the device’s technology. It was simply a model for what they already knew of the universe and did not provide them anything that they saw as useful beyond that. Advancing the device to be a daily timepiece, for instance, may not even have occurred to them because the Greeks already had more primitive timekeeping devices that met their needs.

The Greek’s real interest was the more abstract idea that planetary movements affected our lives. The Antikythera mechanism was a way of modeling movements of the solar system as a way to understand, show, foresee astronomical events. In other words, the abstract idea of astrology drove the development of the device.

A second point that Marchant's article makes is posited by Hall, who suggests that it may have been the introduction of a weight-powered drive mechanism (and I would add, escapement) around the early 1300s that really caused innovation in clockworks to explode. Without the need for a human to constantly interact with the mechanism, all sorts of possibilities opened up, particularly if there was a driving need. And by all accounts, that need came from the Roman Catholic Church, which required multiple times for prayer and attendance during the day. These times could be somewhat erratic and a clock, as we know it, would bring order to ritual.

Thus, you have an old but stagnant technology—geared mechanisms; new technology—weight-drive and escapement; and most important, a problem in need of a solution. An abstract idea, such as the importance of timely worship, was what drove the development of the modern clock.

Abstract vs. concrete thinking

Today we often see innovation as coming up with the next “big idea,” something revolutionary, something nobody has ever really thought of before. But as seen from the Antikythera mechanism, that is not always the case. The next big thing might be right in front of us. We just don’t see it because there is no need to see it. There’s no driver.

Our mistake is in thinking that a new idea is an end in itself as opposed to simply a piece to a bigger invention in search of a reason for existence. I may be overstating it, but I think that great inventions come from the synthesis of abstract ideas with concrete science and mechanics. For synthesis to occur, we need abstract thinking. It isn’t enough to teach science, technology, engineering, and math in the hopes of training up the next innovators. Those skills are simply the nuts and bolts that allow the synthesis with more abstract ideas that we gain from art and literature.

My question is, are we shifting too much emphasis to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and neglecting those studies that explore and develop abstract thinking? Can you have one without the other? Without abstract ideas, often derived from the search for who we are, would there be any motivation to take purely scientific knowledge and put it to use?

In my previous incarnation I worked with several inventor/physicists. Oddly to me at the time was that almost all of them were musicians. As I look back on that now, I don’t think that is coincidence. I believe that their interest in music made them better, or at least more inventive, physicists. I believe it’s the playfulness and—ok, soulfulness—of the arts that allows our mind to make connections that we might not otherwise make.

As parents, or just simply U.S. citizens interested in educating tomorrow’s workforce, we need to be concerned about education and what we are teaching. And while I firmly believe that STEM education and scientific thinking has become more important than ever in today’s complex work environment, it can’t be emphasized at the cost of teaching art of all types.

Abstract thinking is what allows us to expand our view. Exposure to music, literature, and the arts lets our minds soar and leave the bounds of Earth. Concrete thinking lets us realize those dreams.

“The desire to fly,” wrote Wilbur Wright, “is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”


About The Author

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest’s picture

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest’s editor in chief.


Egg or Chicken?

Last night as I considered this discussion, I came to the question, "Which is cause and which is effect?" Is art the catalyst or the byproduct in the process?

The Antikythera analog computer

The antikythera mechanism is actually an analog computer of the time.  Where to put it in the scale of complexity of instruments of 150 B.C. culture is difficult; perhaps a historian of science can tell us, but I imagine that it is near the best at that time.  It seems to be based on the geocentric solar system, and uses fairly basic geometric principles of that time.  But its engineering is tremendous.  We must be careful to not imbue it with our modern views of its purposes for them. I agree that since astrology was as real to them as automobiles are to us, a timekeeper for olympic events would naturally be folded in with astronomical events.

Progress was made in 1500 years after the antikythera despite the lack of power for devices, in disagreement with Marchant.  The astrolabe comes to mind, a cousin of the antikythera.  And William Oughtred's slide rule also, after the invention of logarithms by Napier.  Both of these are analog computers with no stored potential energy.  Machines that use potential energy, i.e., "engines," include the windmill (maybe 9th century A.D.) and the many military machines similar to the trebuchet.  Progress would have to be thought of in terms of the mere invention of these devices, for they weren't as sophisticated as the antikythera (the slide rule is the exception).

I agree that invention is the result of application of abstract ideas to the concrete world.  In addition to this, "chance favors the prepared mind," as Ben Franklin said.  And there is imagination.  It took the imagination of Richard Feynman to tell everyone that nanotechnology was possible, decades after the atomic theory of matter was confirmed.  But I cannot agree that music and the arts are somehow an essential ingredient to invention.  Certainly Einstein was an accomplished violinist, but he never said that this ability was essential for his imagination in physics.  It was a soothing avocation for him, period.  Science fiction clearly inspires the imagination, but it does not invent anything.  Isaac Asimov was an awesome author and popularizer of science, but he did not need his literary expertise in his study of chemistry. 

The STEM initiative is so important for the 21st century, but I fear for its dilution when arts get involved as a substitute.  I think the STEAM movement is anathema to science and technology (A = arts).  I disagree that scientists and artists are more alike than different, as a Scientific American article of some years ago posits.  Artists tag along and may make meaningful the advances of science to the common person, but they work with emotions and the common human experience.  Neither of these is the coin of the realm for science and technology.  In other words, no amount of expertise in Shakespeare could prepare one to construct the Brooklyn Bridge, but enjoying the theatre was probably a nice part of Washington Roebling's life.  Chance does not favor the mind prepared with Milton, Chaucer and Dickinson insofar as technological advance is desired.

Thank you for your inspiring column!

Importance of STEM

Hi L.F.M.

I agree with you on the importance of STEM. But as I said in the column, I think to eliminate the arts (as is happening in some school districts due to budget constraints) and focus solely on STEM is a mistake. Although I would agree that the arts by themselves probably won't generate a scientific breakthrough, I do believe that the ideas and notions that you find in the arts open the mind to possibilities/connections that might not otherwise come to the inventor. Think of it as using the entire brain instead of only half of it, with one side contributing possibilities to the other.

As far as whether the arts are "essential" to scientific innovation, who knows. I'm not sure it's possible to answer that. I personally think it is, but that is in large part because I have a grounding in both art and engineering, and I know for certain that some of my engineering solutions have come from somewhere other than previous engineering or science teaching or experience.

Thanks for your comments. They did make me stop and think (with both sides of my brain).

Geocentric vs. Heliocentric

Just a note that, if you look at the geocentric mode,l it actually simplified the design  and construction of the device... wheels within wheels...

As to the arts being anathema to science, while the arts may not prepare one to build the next great edifice, they will inspire that edifice. Remove the inspiration and there is no need for the engineer, just a super computer to perfectly reduce the requirement to specifications and prints. Perfect function, perfect performance, total lack of elegance...

The ancient Greeks taught the world how to think

The ancient Greeks' stories and achievements essentially taught the world how to think. That is, the Greeks recognized that there was probably a way to do something better, even if humans could currently not conceive of it.

  • Aristotle predicted that industrialization, e.g. in the form of what we would now call robots, would abolish slavery by making it uneconomical. The Industrial Revolution proved this prediction accurate about 2000 years later.
  • The Greek legend of Daedelus involved human-powered flight, and gave people the idea that they might indeed be able to fly one day. ("“The desire to fly,” wrote Wilbur Wright, “is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”")
  • The legends of Hercules literally transformed the world through Alexander the Great, who cited Hercules as his role model (and who was even depicted as wearing Hercules' lion skin). Hercules often had to solve problems by thinking about them, and he altered geography by diverting two rivers to clean out the Augean Stables. Alexander later altered geograpy by building a causeway or isthmus to attack the fortress of Tyre, and similarly came up with a very innovative solution to the Gordian Knot.
  • The Greek legend of Hephaestus said that the god of engineering and mechanical crafts created mechanical men (robots) to assist him in his work.
  • Greeks showed that steam could do useful work, and also (Archimedes) the value of mechanical advantage; he purportedly used machines to destroy enemy warships and, according to some stories, used an array of mirrors to direct concentrated sunlight against enemy ships to set them on fire. Modern solar furnaces use exactly that approach today.

The Antikythera mechanism is particularly impressive because it must have been hand-made, without modern machine tools and without modern metrology methods, but nonetheless performed its intended function

Added abstraction

Thanks Bill.

I think you could point to each of your bullets and draw a direct line from abstract idea to concrete invention. Daedelus is a great example. The idea to be like the gods, or reach for the gods (Babel), or simply the beauty of soaring with the birds eventually led to man being able to fly. A lot of small inventions were needed along the way, but at some point, that abstract idea became a reality.


There is always the possibilty that this was a "one off" work of an ancient D'Vinci.  And let us not forget the knowledge lost with the burning of the Library of Alexandria, or destroyed by zealots.

As for abstract thinking, this is one reason AI will always be limited... the great power of the mind is the ability to imagine and wonder "What if..."

Unfortunately, our educational system (with exceptions) is not geared to be in sync with rapidly changing technology. By the time a technology has reached the textbook, it has matured and taught as "accepted practice". Tomorrow's great ideas are most likely to come from coop students who experience the "real world" and the "hallowed halls" more or less simultaineously.


Hi Alan. The question about AI is interesting. Rather than say more, I heartily recommend you listen to this RadioLab segment.


Although the first half is interesting, it's the segment that starts 30 minutes into the program that is really, really thought provoking.

At what point does the "A" drop off of "AI"? Can that ever happen? If AI gets sophisticated enough will it be indistinguishable from human thought?

At the root of that question, I think, is the more basic question: are humans just meat computers? Or, is there something in us that comes from "outside" of us.

If so, then the question of whether AI could ever match human thought is probably already answered. If not, if our brains are just very complex chemical computers, and that's it, then couldn't there eventually be a man-made computer that is just as complex as us?

Dilbert Refernce

Nice reference to Dilbert and "Meat Computers."