Thursday, March 31, 2016

My Education Interferes With My Learning

My Education Interferes with My Learning

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.
Albert Einstein
I recently watched the PBS Nova program about the Antikythera Mechanism, the geared device found on a Roman ship that sank around 100 BCE. While this device was discovered in 1900, it took another fifty years before it was taken seriously. And it has only been in the last ten years that we have begun to understand its remarkable sophistication. 

The Antikythera Mechanism as it was found 
and there were also a number of fragments. (

It turns out it is an ancient Greek analog calculator that could predict eclipses (the Saros cycle) and calculate the Metonic cycle which reconciled the lunar cycle with solar years to keep the calendar in sync. Plus it could calculate the complex movement of the moon "around the ecliptic in a 8.88 year cycle (Wikipedia)" and also, it is speculated, replicate the movement of the planets. 

X-Rays revealed a complex set of interlocking gears.  (

It is now seen as an ancient computer and perhaps the most sophisticated device of classical antiquity -- one that changes our study of history.

The Antikythera Mechanism means that the Greeks who built it had reduced time to a mathematical and geometric formula and in addition put those concepts into a geared machine that could also predict the future such as eclipses. This is a major leap toward the modern concept of time.

Yet although all of this is quite fascinating, there is another aspect to this story that I find even more intriguing.

When this device was dredged up from the Roman shipwreck along with many other items such as sculptures in 1900, it went unnoticed for two years. When it was finally noticed by the archaeologist Valerios Stais, he believed it was an astronomical clock -- an intuition which proved to be correct.  However, most experts assumed it was an anomaly. The thinking of educated people at the time was that any such geared device was too advanced for the age of the ancient vessel so it must have somehow ended up on the ship accidentally. As a result nobody examined the device further for another 50 years.
On 17th May 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais was examining the finds and noticed that one of the pieces of rock had a gear wheel embedded in it. Stais initially believed it was an astronomical clock, but most scholars considered the device to be prochronistic, too complex to have been constructed during the same period as the other pieces that had been discovered. Investigations into the object were soon dropped...
It was not until the 1950s that  Derek J. de Solla Price, a professor of the History of Science at Yale, took a long look at the device and realized that it deserved a full investigation. He X-rayed the corroded metal to reveal the hidden gearing underneath. His investigations opened the door to a full study of the device which now finally, with state-of-the-art 3-D X-ray equipment, have begun to be revealed. 

Derek de Solla Price with his recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism.  (

The mechanism consists of a complex system of 30 wheels and plates with inscriptions relating to signs of the zodiac, months, eclipses and pan-Hellenic games. The study of the fragments suggests that this was a kind of astrolabe. The interpretation now generally accepted dates back to studies by Professor w:en:Derek de Solla Price, who was the first to suggest that the mechanism is a machine to calculate the solar and lunar calendar, that is to say, an ingenious machine to determine the time based on the movements of the sun and moon, their relationship (eclipses) and the movements of other stars and planets known at that time. Later research by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project and scholar Michael Wright has added to and improved upon Price's work.  

To me this is a classic tale of people's preconceptions and their education interfering with knowledge and understanding. For example, what were the odds of such a device accidentally falling into an ancient sunken ship?

I have written about this before. When the 'caveman' paintings in the Cave at Altamira were first discovered, they were not taken seriously and the man who discovered them was accused of fraud, even though none of his educated accusers had gone into the cave and looked at the paintings. It was not until twenty years later, when a number of other caves with prehistoric paintings had been discovered, that his accusers admitted they were wrong.

See my two blogs about this:

With the Antikythera Mechanism I see the same dynamic at work. When it was first discovered, calculators were uncommon, so educated scholars could not make the leap that it could be an ancient calculator. Yet by the 1950s modern calculating devices and our awareness of computers -- the first commercial computer the UNIVAC became available in 1951 and was used to predict the outcome of the presidential election -- were almost commonplace. With this new perspective, historians could then look at an ancient device and recognize that it could be a complex calculator. 

Now admittedly understanding the nature of this mechanism and the paintings at Altamira required a leap. In the case of the paintings it meant rethinking our understanding of prehistoric humans and stone age culture and in the case of the Antikythera Mechanism, rethinking our ideas about the sophistication of ancient Greek science.  

A similar dynamic takes place with experimentation. A scientist who experiments but has a high expectation of a certain result will not be receptive to results that do not fit his or her theory.

Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for
making discoveries; they also make very poor observations. Of necessity, they
observe with a preconceived idea, and when they devise an experiment, they can
see, in its results, only a confirmation of their theory. In this way they distort
observations and often neglect very important facts because they do not further
their aim.
Bernard, Claude. An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865).
New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957.  

As Einstein pointed out many times in his writing, logic is a poor tool when faced with this kind of discovery. 

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
Albert Einstein

Now to use the old expression, I feel strongly about this because I, personally, do have a dog in this fight. 

As I have written, I believe the passageway at the Passage Tomb in Newgrange Ireland -- that everyone now (finally) agrees is aligned with the rising sun on the day of the winter solstice-- is a precise instrument that was equal to and possibly superior to the science of the Greeks and Romans. I say this because I believe it could indicate the exact day of the winter solstice in real time which the science of the Greeks and Romans could not. 

Detailed drawing of Newgrange passage showing the precise placement of stones and the shaft of solstice light. Used with permission: 


My point in a way is very simple. Modern humans for 200k years have always been intelligent and used their resources in a sophisticated manner -- given their technology at the time. Neolithic people built a precise solstice device for a simple reason, they felt they needed to know the exact day the solstice occurred -- perhaps to reset their calendar and also for ritual purposes. This was not as important to the Greeks and Romans. They could calculate the day of the winter solstice after the fact, but did not feel a need to know on the actual day when it occurred. 

If what I am saying is true, it will change our perception of Neolithic people and our understanding of the complexity of their culture. 

Yet when I proposed this idea and posted it on various sites related to Neolithic study, it has been almost automatically rejected, due to our current assumptions about the skills of Neolithic culture. 

Yet this is an idea that can be tested. An accurate computer model of Newgrange using GPS and laser scanning along with a computer simulation of the rising winter solstice sun adjusted for the time when Newgrange was built should prove or disprove this theory. 

I anxiously await the day when funds and a research team will be available to do this.