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The Antikythera Mechanism and the Mechanical Universe

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How did our view of the Universe develop? By the mid-Eighteenth Century the world view was of a system constrained by physical laws. These laws, if not entirely understood, showed regularity and could be handled mathematically to provide both explanation and prediction of celestial phenomena. Most of us have at least some hazy idea of the fundamental shift that came through the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. The idea of a “Mechanical Universe” tends to be associated with these Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century pioneers. It remains a useful – and perhaps comforting – analogy. Yet recent investigations based around the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek artefact from around 100 BC, reinforce a view that the “Mechanical” conception has been around for a much longer time – indeed certainly as far back as the third century BC. The discovery of the structure and functions of the Antikythera Mechanism will be described, and a strong claim (based on literary references) will be made that knowledge of mechanical representations of the Universe was critical in the development of cosmology and philosophy. There is evidence that the technology persisted until its spectacular and rather sudden re-appearance in Western Europe around 1300 AD. From then on it is not hard to chart a path through the astronomical clocks of the 16th Century to Kepler’s aim (expressed in a 1605 letter) to “show that the heavenly machine is not a kind of divine, live being, but a kind of clockwork…”. Even so, is mechanical analogy still useful in the 21st Century?

This talk is part of the Cambridge Astrophysics Joint Colloquia series.

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