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Decoding the Heavens – Jo Marchant *****

Just occasionally, as a science writer, I come across a subject that makes me think ‘Wow, that’s brilliant, it would make a great book! I must write it.’ About five seconds later I realize that it’s so obviously a good story that someone else will have beaten me to it. And sure enough, there’s the book. In this case I did think it, Jo Marchant has written it, and the result is excellent.
The subject is not, as you might think from the title, astronomy, but the Antikythera (anti-kith-era) Mechanism. Even that name is redolent with excitement – it’s like something Indiana Jones or Lara Croft might search for – and there were certainly some interesting characters involved in its decoding. Even Arthur C. Clarke and Richard Feynman were fascinated by this ancient puzzle. The Mechanism is a device found in 1900 amongst the wreckage of a Greek ship from the first century BC. It’s a complex geared structure, built hundreds of years before anyone knew such gearing was used.
Without giving too much away, the device has proved neither a clock nor an astrolabe (two of the early ideas) but a calculator that predicted the motion of bodies in the solar system and even seems to have acted as a combined calendar and Greek games locator. It was, in essence, an early computer – not a programmable computer, but one specifically designed around astronomical data. Marchant weaves an elegant tale of the gradual uncovering of the Mechanism’s function, drawing in many associated developments, from the use of diving equipment to the use of X-rays in uncovering details of the hidden mechanism.
If I have one slight complaint it’s that Marchant likes starting a chapter with a historical dramatization and this doesn’t always work. For instance, the first couple of pages of chapter 3 begin with a description of a historical ship setting sail. But we’ve already been introduced to the Mechanism, and I wanted to get on with that. Okay, this turns out to be a description of the ship the Mechanism was sunk with , but continuity was shattered. She also has a confusing tendency to switch in and out of the historical present tense mid-paragraph.
That’s a minor moan, though. It’s a wonderful subject and an entrancing book. Recommended.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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