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Diving Deep to Reveal the Microbial Mysteries of Lost City

Lost City 2005
The remotely operated vehicle Hercules explores the hydrothermal vents of Lost City during a 2005 expedition. (Deborah Kelley)
SMITHSONIAN.COM

Smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, atop an underwater mountain rising over 10,000 feet above the seafloor, sits Lost City. Hundreds of white spires jut into the dark ocean, spanning the area of a city block and towering between 30 and 200 feet tall. Hot alkaline fluids filled with hydrogen gas spew from the tops of these natural towers into the waters just east of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

What looks like a long-abandoned metropolis is, in fact, teeming with microscopic life. The trillions of microbial residents of Lost City, perched on top of the Atlantis Massif, have become a fascination for scientists. These microbes, thriving in a hydrothermal vent field deep in the Atlantic, hold the secret to life’s survival in such hostile environments—and they may even provide clues about the origins of life on Earth.

Tomorrow, September 8, a group of 22 researchers, microbiologists, geologists and oceanographers, will travel to Lost City for the first time in years. This group of scientists wants to know how the microbes of Lost City make their living, what they eat and breathe, and how they survive in the extreme temperatures and pressures of the deep ocean.

“We want to know how they’re living there,” says team co-lead William Brazelton, a microbiologist at the University of Utah.

Discovered in 2000, Lost City is one of only a few known places like it on the planet. Unlike more common types of hydrothermal vents, such as black smokers and methane seeps, Lost City is not fueled by volcanic activity. Rather, the vents are created when seawater encounters rock from the Earth’s mantle, creating gas and energy in a process known as serpentinization. Calcium-rich water from these vents then reacts with carbon in the seawater to form Lost City’s iconic carbonate chimneys.

Lost City Carbonate Chimneys
Carbonate chimneys of Lost City imaged during a 2005 expedition to the hydrothermal vent system. (D. Kelley/ M. Elend/UW/URI-IAO/NOAA/The Lost City Science Team)

Hydrogen gas spewing from the chimneys provides an ample energy source for the microbes living in Lost City. “It’s the closest thing to a free lunch the universe provides,” Brazelton says. The chimneys also release methane, an organic molecule which is a rich source of energy for many types of life.

While energy is abundant, it’s not yet clear where microbes in this deep-sea ecosystem get their carbon or nutrients. According to team co-lead Susan Lang, a geochemist at the University of South Carolina, solving this mystery is one of the primary missions of the expedition.

“One of the questions we’re trying to go after is, what are these microbes scrounging for?” she says. “Life is always scrounging for something.”

During the three-week expedition, scientists aboard the U.S. Navy research vessel (R/V) Atlantis will send a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), named Jason, down some 2,600 feet into Lost City to collect samples. “Jason looks like an SUV with a big tail coming out of the back,” says Beth Orcutt, a microbiologist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, who is involved in the expedition but not going herself. “The scientists use Jason as their eyes and arms on the seafloor.”

Jason will collect sediment from the seafloor and extract small samples of Lost City chimneys, but mostly, Jason will be collecting water. The expedition scientists plan to collect water streaming out of the chimneys to capture microbes that live deep within the Atlantis Massif. The researchers hypothesize that microbes within the mountain introduce carbon and nutrients to the ecosystem, which enables microbial life on the surface of the chimneys.

“It would show that the earth is a highly connected system,” Lang says. “Even really weird organisms living down at the sub-seafloor are enabling life on the surface.”

The ROV Jason, which will explore Lost City and take samples this month.
The ROV Jason, which will explore Lost City and take samples this month. (Tom Kleindinst/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Determining how microbes survive within the mountain, where inhospitable conditions surround the serpentinization process, could also give a glimpse of possible life on other planets. Because the ingredients are relatively simple (rock and seawater), and the environment is oxygen-free, microbes within the Atlantis could be a window to extraterrestrial lifeforms.

“This is an example of a type of ecosystem that could be active on Enceladus or Europa right this second,” Brazelton said, referring to watery moons of Saturn and Jupiter, “and maybe Mars in the past.”

The ROV Jason will collect around 30 liters of seawater every day. Some of the collected water will be stored in freezers for future research, while some will be analyzed on the spot to measure chemical composition as well as microbe and virus populations. Over the next years, genetic testing of the seawater samples will illuminate what kinds of microbes live in this extreme environment and how they manage to survive.

There are also scientists who believe that Lost City, or a place like it, may be where life started on Earth. “It’s a good system for where early life may have developed,” Lang said. Small pores in the walls of Lost City chimneys, combined with basic (as opposed to acidic) seawater and an unlimited energy source in the hydrogen gas, could provide the Goldilocks conditions needed for spontaneous life.

“The geochemistry and geology at Lost City appear to come together in a way that would resolve the energetic chicken-and-egg problem of life’s origin,” said Jeffrey Marlow, a microbiologist at Harvard University who is not involved in the expedition. The “chicken-and-egg” problem refers to the fact that a cell needs energy to create bio-molecules, and bio-molecules are needed to harness energy.

Marlow thinks it’s plausible that the high-pH water swirling into chimney pores at Lost City could generate favorable conditions for life to begin. The hydrogen gas and other molecules mixing together in the pores may create a pre-cursor to a cell, known as a proto-cell.

A scanning electron microscope image reveals the gauzy biofilms made of microbes on and within Lost City chimneys.
A scanning electron microscope image reveals the gauzy biofilms made of microbes on and within Lost City chimneys. (Courtesy of Tomaso Bontognali, Susan Lang, and Gretchen Früh-Green)

Other places like Lost City exist in the deep sea, but they have proven difficult to find. Because the byproducts of serpentinization are relatively mundane—mostly hydrogen and methane—sites like Lost City don’t have strong biosignatures like other hydrothermal vent systems, such as black smokers which spout sulfur gas. “We would posit that sites like Lost City are pretty widespread, we just don’t know where they are,” Lang says. “Right now, we would say Lost City is unique, but it’s probably not alone.”

Finding another Lost City soon seems unlikely considering most of the ocean has never been explored by humans. “We’ve only seen a tiny fraction of the seafloor,” Marlow says. “There’s so much more out there to be discovered.” According to the United States National Ocean Service, less than 20 percent of the ocean has been mapped or observed by humans.

The deep ocean is as much a frontier for scientists as deep space. Researchers are just beginning to understand how diverse life functions in extreme ecosystems near the seafloor, and scientists aren’t the only ones looking to the deep sea. Mineral resources, like nickel, cobalt, silver and gold, have piqued the interest of mining companies, who are increasingly investing in future deep-sea exploitation.

“When I was a student learning about the deep sea, the idea that there are minerals on the seafloor that industries might want to mine was totally a sci-fi idea because it was not economically viable at all,” Orcutt said. But now, the required technologies are here, and the International Seabed Authority (the United Nations agency that gives permission for mining in international waters) gives out permits for mining exploration every year. One such permit, issued in August 2017, gave Poland the right to exploit the area of seafloor where Lost City is located.

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A “beehive” structure in Lost City. (Courtesy of Deborah Kelley, University of Washington)

Some marine scientists say that mining the seafloor before we understand its basic biology could be a recipe for disaster. “Just like with any frontier, it’s pretty easy to affect changes without even knowing what’s there or what the vulnerabilities are,” says Lisa Levin, a deep sea biologist and co-founder of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative, which aims to bring scientists, economists, policy experts and industry representatives together on issues of deep sea exploitation. Levin says that when Poland received the rights to mine the area around Lost City, it raised a red flag for deep sea microbiologists. “It was a catalytic event.”

Many deep-sea researchers are now calling to conserve Lost City and places like it, highlighting the global importance of deep ocean microbiology, which contributes to nutrient cycles, climate mitigation and genetic diversity. “We want to draw attention to the invisible fraction of life,” Orcutt says, who has organized scientific meetings about the impacts of deep sea mining on microbial activity. “The sea floor has value. Every time scientists go to the bottom of the ocean, new species are discovered. There’s so much of the ocean we don’t know about.”

This month’s expedition to Lost City will help us learn a little bit more about the mysterious worlds below.

Incredible Historical Coincidences – Too Strange to be True?

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Most people are aware of strange or wonderful coincidences in their lives, like a chance meeting with someone from the same area where you grew up while travelling, for instance.

Coincidences are a part of the human experience. But some historical coincidences are particularly strange – almost too strange to be true. And yet, they apparently are. Here are just a few.

The Curse of Timur

Timur, also known as Temurlane, or Amir Timur, was a Turco-Mongol conqueror, and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty. He lived from 1336 to 1405, and ruled from 1370 until his death.

His aim was to restore the great Mongol empire of Genghis Khan, who had died over a century earlier in 1227, and referred to himself as “the Sword of Islam.” He was buried in a mausoleum in Samarkand, but his body was exhumed in 1941 and examined by Mikhail Gerasimov, a Soviet anthropologist.

Allegedly, Timur’s tomb was inscribed with the phrase – “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble” – and a second inscription was found on his casket: “Whomsoever disturbs my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.” The coincidence?

Adolf Hitller’s forces invaded the Soviet Union three days later as part of Operation Barbarossa, which was the largest military invasion in history. A few days before the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, Timur was re-buried, in a full Islamic ritual.

Unlikely Neighbors

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German-born composer who spent the bulk of his career living in London, England.

He is famous for his operas, organ concertos, anthems and oratorios, but his most well known work is certainly Messiah, which he composed n 1742. Having spent almost 50 years in England, Handel died in London as a rich and respected man, and was given full state honors with a burial in Westminster Abbey.

Fast-forward 200 years later, again to London, and another talented musician named Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942, and moved to London in 1966 where, with the production help of Chas Chandler, he formed the band the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and in 1967 released his famous song “Purple Haze.”

After leaving London for 6 months, Hendrix moved back, in 1969, and in with his girlfriend to her apartment at 23 Brock St. The coincidence? George Frederic Handel had lived at number 25. The building is now the Handel & Hendrix in London museum.

Vienna’s Bad Boys?

Vienna, Austria, is known for its culture, Spanish Riding School, and opulent Carnival. But it is also known as being the former temporary home of some of history’s worst offenders. And they happened to each live in Vienna at the same time.

Adolf Hitler, Josip Broz Tito, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin all resided in Vienna during the summer of 1913. Hitler, believed to have lived in Vienna since 1908, was struggling to make a living as a painter.

Stalin spent about a month in the city, wrote on Marxism, and met with Russian revolutionary Trotsky, who lived in Vienna for about 7 years and launched the newspaper Pravda – which translates as The Truth. Tito, a Yugoslav communist revolutionary and later political leader, worked at as a machinist a local Daimler factory and became active in the local labor movement.

Hitler, Trotsky, Tito and Stalin were all patrons of Café Central (Hitler and Trotsky were regulars), which closed at the end of the Second World War. It reopened in 1975, and is now a popular tourist spot.

The Unsinkable Violet Jessop

An ocean liner nurse and stewardess, Violet Jessop certainly had some good tales to tell of her travels.

Especially when those travels were met with disaster.

In 1911, she was on board the luxury ship RMS Olympic as a stewardess when it collided with a British war ship.

There were no fatalities, and Olympic was able to make it to port without sinking.

Undeterred by this experience, Jessup boarded RMS Titanic in 1912, again as a stewardess.

The fate of the Titanic is well known, and Jessup was one of the survivors of the devastating event.

In 1916, she took to the sea again, this time as a stewardess for the British Red Cross aboard HMHS Britannic.

The vessel had been converted to a hospital ship, but sank in the Aegean Sea after an explosion, taking 30 lives with it.

Jessup, while jumping out of her lifeboat to avoid being dragged until the boat’s propellers, suffered a head injury.

She returned to work for the White Star Line in 1920, in defiance of her previous experiences, and was often called “Miss Unsinkable.”

Right Place at the Right Time. Twice!

In October of 1938, Joseph Figlock was a street sweeper in Detroit, Michigan.

He was tidying up in an alley when a baby fell out of a window four storys up.

It landed on Figlock’s head and shoulders and, while they were both somewhat injured, the baby girl survived.

A year later, again while sweeping out an alley, another child – this time a boy – fell again from a window.

As before, the baby landed on Figlock, with a similar, and rather happy, result.

Revenge or Karma?

Henry Ziegland of Honey Grove, Texas, was a bit of a heart-breaker, according to legend. In 1893 he broke up with his girlfriend, who subsequently took her own life, leaving her family devastated.

Her distraught brother took it upon himself to avenge his sister’s broken heart and defend his family’s honor.

He shot at Ziegland, but only grazed his face; the bullet instead hit a nearby tree. Nonetheless, the brother, believing he had killed Ziegland, further intensified his family’s grief and took his own life as well.

20 years later, Ziegland opted to cut down the tree in which the bullet had remained lodged. In order to speed up the process, he used dynamite.

While the resulting explosion did, in fact, take down the tree, it also discharged the bullet straight at Ziegler’s head, killing him. Revenge may not have been quick, but it was obtained in the end.

Neighbors For Eternity

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries that dot Europe are unmistakable.

The white Portland stone grave markers each contain the national emblem or regimental badge of each casualty, as well as their rank, name, unit, date of death and age.

Tragically, these cemeteries are all too easy to find.

The first British soldier killed by enemy action during the First World War was a young Private by the name of John Henry Parr. He was born in 1897 Finchley, now part of London, the youngest of 11 children.

He was killed by German rifle fire on August 21, 1914 in the village of Obourg, just north east of Mons, Belgium.

The last British soldier killed during the First World War was Private George Edwin Ellison.

He was born in 1878 in Leeds, England, and, having already served in the British Army, joined up again at the start of the war. He was killed, at the age of 40, while on patrol near Mons on November 11, 1918, just an hour and a half before the Armistice came into effect.

The coincidence? Both Parr and Ellison are buried in the same Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, about 15 feet from each other.

 Patricia Grimshaw

Saturn moon a step closer to hosting life

Image of a white ice moon with blue lines streaked across its surface and a small cluster of cratersImage copyrightNASA

Scientists have found complex carbon-based molecules in the waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Compounds like this have only previously been found on Earth, and in some meteorites.

They are thought to have formed in reactions between water and warm rock at the base of the moon’s subsurface ocean.

Though not a sign of life, their presence suggests Enceladus could play host to living organisms.

The discovery came from data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft.

An image of Enceladus next to a satellite map of Great Britain. The moon spans from the top of Scotland to YorkImage copyright PRESS ASSOCIATION
Image captionSmall neighbourhood: Enceladus is just 500km wide

A new pale blue dot?

“These huge molecules contain a complex network often built from hundreds of atoms,” explains study author Dr Frank Postberg.

“This is the first ever detection of such complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water-world.”

On Earth, these molecules are usually biologically created, but this does not have to be the case.

“They are a necessary precursor to life,” says Dr Postberg, “[but] we currently cannot tell if these organics are biologically irrelevant or signs of prebiotic chemistry or even life.”

What does life need?

  • Liquid water
  • Energy
  • Organics (compounds containing carbon)
  • A group of particular elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur)

Phosphorus and sulphur have not yet been measured on the moon, but it has all of the other ingredients.

What next?

The Cassini mission, which ended by plunging into Saturn’s cloud-tops last September, was never designed to detect life.

In fact, it was dispatched before scientists even knew about the peculiar jets of water emerging from the south pole of Enceladus.

Cassini first observed them in 2005, after its arrival in the Saturn system.

The technology to distinguish whether molecules like those detected are biological in origin already exists on Earth.

“The next logical step,” says Dr Postberg, “is to go back to Enceladus soon with a dedicated payload and see if there is extraterrestrial life.”

Ancient GPS – Viking sunstones

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There is a lot wrong with the popular History Channel series Vikings. There is a lot right with it, too. Much of what you see on screen falls in the middle somewhere.

An example or two of the wrong: If there even was a Ragnar Lothbrok (the series’ main protagonist in its first four seasons, and who some historians consider a conglomeration of many Viking characters), he did not live at the same time as his series’ brother, Rollo.

In the series, the character Rollo (in reality, “Gangr Hrolf,” or “Hrolf the Walker” for his long legs) lived 50 to 75 years before the man was actually born and he received land in France, which became “Normandy,” meaning “Land of the Northmen,” perhaps 100 years after the series begins.

After agreeing to help the King of France repel any further invasions by his brother, Rollo proceeds to use French troops to kill his Viking compatriots who complain. Why then is Rollo needed? Now he is just a lone Viking.

In the Season 5a finale, we see Rollo coming to the aid of his nephews Ivar and Hvitserk at the head of a massive fleet. If the French had a massive fleet capable of reaching Norway, it’s news to virtually everyone, and history would likely have played out much differently than it did.

Those are just a couple of things wrong with the character Rollo and the timeline of the program.

However, the series does get much right. Much of the everyday life of the Vikings depicted in the series is correct, with the popular exception of the semi-Mad Max leather costumes.

We know too that Viking men were frequently tattooed and wore somewhat elaborate hairstyles. We are told this by Arab travelers who documented their visits among the Northmen. Most of the rituals depicted in the series fits outside contemporary accounts as well.

It seems also that Michael Hirst, the shows’ creator and writer, got the idea of female warriors right. While “shield-maidens” had been loosely mentioned in some texts following the Viking era, there had never been definitive proof. We don’t have it now, but it’s beginning to look like some women did take part in Viking warfare, and/or at the very dangerous game of Viking politics.

In 1889, Viking-era remains were found in a grave in Birka, Sweden. 128 years later, they were identified as female through DNA testing. In the grave with the female skeleton were typical warriors goods. Though nothing points directly to her being a warrior–she may have been a high-status warrior’s wife, given his expensive goods as a token of love, or perhaps the high-status female was anticipating joining the Valkyries in the afterlife. We are not 100 percent sure.

However, when taken with tales from the sagas (whose details, not theme, should be taken lightly), we know that women played a significant role in the political world of Iceland.

We know that women in Norway and Iceland enjoyed rights that few other women of the time could even dream of, such as divorce and inheritance.

The series’ first episode revolves around Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother yearning to try their hand at raiding in the west, not around the Baltic Sea as they apparently have for years. This is another of the show’s errors–the Vikings knew full well there was land to the west.

10 Things you may not know about the Vikings

Trade had gone on sporadically for centuries throughout the breadth and length of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Still, many British trade goods arrived via Denmark over land from France, and not every Ragnar, Rollo, or Ivar would know how to get there over the open ocean.

Ragnar lets his brother in on a little secret. He has gained a “sunstone” from a wanderer, and this will allow them to successfully navigate even if the sun is obscured with cloud and fog, as is common as dirt in the North Sea.

Here’s the trouble. No one is sure that sunstone (which is the nickname for certain types of feldspar, and other stones, such as calcite and tourmaline) was used in the Viking era, or as early as Ragnar Lothbrok was said to have lived. Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries mention “sunstones” but are vague about their use.

Later Christian texts mention them as well, but we do not know whether the Vikings of any era used them for navigation. Until archaeologists find one in a Viking grave or other yet undiscovered site, we may never know for sure.

Recent studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that it was possible to navigate using a sunstone. As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science in April 2018, two professors, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth, knowing the measurements and traits of Viking-era vessels, weather patterns in the North Sea and currents, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking voyages.

They found that if a navigator used a sunstone to monitor the sun’s position at least once every three hours he would reach his target exactly 92-100 percent of the time (and this period includes just before sunrise and just after sunset, as sunstones can magnify the suns light on the horizon before its truly visible to the naked eye).

In one of their simulations, the professors used a different type of sunstone, and departing from Norway in their simulation, found that if they checked their stone for the sun once every four hours instead of three, they would blow past the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and end up in…Canada.

 Matthew Gaskill


Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.

In pictures: the Romani vardo wagons–these were more than just cozy homes

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The vibrant horse-drawn vardo wagons were at the cultural heart of the British Romanichals (Romani) from the mid-1800s into the early 20th century.

These sometimes opulent-looking caravans were more than just cozy and warm homes that housed the Romani families who were always on the road. A vardo wagon attested to the economic status of the family as well as supporting the age-old nomadic way of life of the Romani people.

They were probably first used by traveling showmen and slowly came to replace the older “benders”–tents made with a hazel frame covered by canvas. They allowed freedom to travel the country and trade everything from horses to brooms.

As we can see in the photos, vardo wagons are a work of art in their own right. It takes real craftsmanship and effort to build and decorate one. There are six distinct types: Burton, Brush, Reading, Ledge, Bowtop, and Openlot.

In the old days, families would have moved from farm to farm, pursuing work according to the season. The winter was time to rest, usually parked near some town or a bigger city. Romani also made an income from various trades, such as tinsmiths, hawkers, tinkers, and horse dealers. They were known for playing lively music and could reputedly make or mend anything.

The wagons were typically elaborately decorated on the outside. The more lavish the decor, the wealthier the family. For instance, if a cart was gilded with gold leaf, it meant the Romani family which owned it was particularly affluent.

Specific patterns and designs on the vardo were almost always associated with their artist. A well-known design likely meant a reputable craftsman. Many of the designs were inspired by nature and wildlife, therefore the recurrent flowery patterns.

And how was life on the road with these beauties?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghost ships have fuelled the imagination for centuries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 Surprising Origins Of Popular English Phrases.

 

 

Typically, it was a mobile household which included everyone, from small children to the elderly. Each family member took care of their own assignments for the day.

Some of the group members were there to work and earn money. If there were kids, it was the grandparents who normally took care of them.

After an active day, there usually followed a get-together evening by a campfire set alongside the cart. Families entertained themselves by the fire sharing jokes, narrating stories, singing, and playing music.

Inside the vardo wagons, there was enough room for sleeping. Besides beds, they contained all the necessary appliances and assets to run a household. Perhaps it was all in miniature but there was everything: a stove, some cupboards, a table, chairs, and a place to store clothes and other belongings.

The vardo wagon was not only a warm little home–it also paid the ticket to freedom.

 Alex .A

The Antikythera mechanism, an ancient analog “computer”, said to be “more valuable than the Mona Lisa”

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Photo Credit Peulle – CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1900, a boat carrying sponge divers encountered a storm and took refuge on the island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea. While they were diving off the island’s coast, they discovered a 2,000-year-old shipwreck, believed to be a Greek ship that had sunk in around 60 or 70 BC.

The divers brought up jewelry, pottery, coins, and statues made of bronze and marble. Another artifact brought up was a lump of eighty-two pieces of a corroded bronze device.

The artifacts were taken to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens for cleaning and analysis, but the bronze artifact was too delicate to be studied by hand. It wasn’t until 1951 that Derek J. de Solla Price, a physicist, and professor at Yale University, took notice of the artifact and began to study it. He employed the most advanced technology for the time, the X-ray machine, to discover its origin and purpose, but still had no answers.

Price and Greek nuclear physicist, Charalampos Karakalos, performed X-ray and gamma-ray tests and in 1974, they published a paper that listed the gear settings and inscriptions on the face of the mechanism. They believed it had been manufactured in around 87 BC, which correlates with the dates of the coins found, and that it may have come from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Researchers initially thought it was an astronomical clock, but others thought that would have been far too sophisticated for the time.

The pieces were made from a low-tin bronze alloy, and because the writing on the artifact is in Koine Greek, it may be safe to assume that the device was made in Greece. Why it was on a cargo ship is unknown, but because researchers believe the cargo was on its way to Rome, it may have been part of booty from the Greek islands.

The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, which began in 2005, is an international association of researchers, backed by the National Archaeological Museum and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Athens, where the device now resides. Technology companies such as Hewlett-Packard from the United States and X-Tek Systems from the UK, assisted the project using advanced digital imaging, 3D technology, and a powerful microscopic X-ray device. Originally designed to search for minute cracks in turbine blades, this machine allowed researchers to decipher the minute details of the writing and gears.

The Antikythera Mechanism has earned the nickname “the first computer” because researchers found it was designed for the study of astronomical phenomena, using a mechanical, computer-like system that shows the cycles of the solar system. The construction exhibited the incorporation of standard theories of astronomy and mathematics at the time.

Professor Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University led a 2006 study of the mechanism. He stated that the device was “just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind”. He said that its astronomy was “exactly right” and that it was “more valuable than the Mona Lisa”. Christian Carman and James Evans spent several years comparing the mechanism with the Babylonian records of eclipses. Using a process of elimination, they determined that the date at which the machine was set to begin, was 205 BC.

The dial has a fixed ring on the front representing the ecliptic, with the twelve zodiac signs marked in equal thirty-degree sectors. This followed the Babylonian custom of assigning one-twelfth of the ecliptic to each zodiac sign, rather than accounting for the variables of the constellation boundaries. On the outside of the first dial is a movable ring that indicates the months and days of the Sothic Egyptian calendar – 12 months of 30 days, plus five extra days distributed throughout the year.

To work the mechanism, a person had to turn a small hand crank into the largest gear, which was linked to a crown gear that moved the date pointer on the front dial to set the correct Egyptian day. The year is unable to be set, so the current year must be known by looking up the cycles shown by various indicators from the Babylonian almanac tables for that day.

In a full rotation, the crank moves the date pointer about 78 days; an additional pointer tracks the spiral cuts in the metal. The dials had four and five full rotations of the pointers; when the pointer reached the final month at either end of the spiral, the second pointer had to be moved by hand to the other end. Turning the hand crank would also cause the interlocked gears inside the mechanism to rotate, causing simultaneous calculations of the position of the sun and moon, the moon phase, eclipse, and calendar cycles.

Articles, videos, and books continue to be produced by the Antikythera mechanism. As research progresses, and with the advent of 3-D printing, perhaps science can look forward to a working model of the device someday in the future.

 Ian Harvey

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