Decoding the Heavens is a non-fiction book by Jo Marchant about the Antikythera mechanism, and was published in 2008.

For the actual focus of the book, see the relevant node, although suffice to remind everyone at this point that the Antikythera mechanism was a Greek artefact originating from around 100BCE, comprising a series of interlocking gears and a set of inscribed instructions, seemingly and impossibly forming a clockwork mechanism for predicting the positions of the heavenly bodies, as well as eclipses and their relation to the calendar.

Generally I'm not a fan of these sorts of books. You know the types. The ones that have a rhetorical question on their front cover: "How Coca-Cola forced Americans to go to the moon" or "What's wrong with Facebook and why that makes Scientologists happy". The other kind are the ones that take some sort of inane or mundane topic - tooth picks, French door knobs, disposable cameras - and write a small tome telling the entire story. Don't get me wrong, in the hands of a good author any one of these could be a good read. But generally they come across too strongly as pitches, and sometimes I can vividly imagine the prospective author using these lines in trying to convince a publisher to give them an advance.

Having flipped through a number of these (including a few I've enjoyed), my main problem is that they sometimes feel like they've been padded a bit much. The interesting bits are pushed off towards the end, and everything else is elaborated unnecessarily.

And so it's a pleasant surprise to be able to recommend Marchant's book. Not only is it a fascinating tale, but she does a good job filling out only those sections that are worth elaborating upon, and doing so in an erudite manner. Part of what makes this book stand apart from the crowd is its author's background: Marchant has a PhD in microbiology, and has worked for the pop-science magazine New Scientist, and the prestigious science journal Nature. Incidentally, it was after Nature published the ground breaking 2006 paper on the mechanism that Marchant became aware of the subject matter. Nature enlisted Marchant to write a news story, summarising what was known about the mechanism and summarising the new (2006) study. I'd like to imagine that the incredible nature of the mystery gripped Marchant like it had so many before her, leading her eventually to author this book.

It's always easier to say what a book is not. And it's not all those things I don't like from pop-science books. But to be honest, Marchant's quite lucky to be writing about such an incredible tale, that perhaps it's no surprise that the book works well. Among the facts which Marchant elaborates on, and which are often missed in other publications' summaries of the Antikythera mechanism, are the lives which were touched, enveloped, and on occasion consumed by the mystery.

It's perhaps no surprise, given the scope of the mystery, and given the amount of time it took to (arguably) solve the problem - about a century - that many individuals from around the globe spent good and intense portions of their lives dedicated to this mechanism. Marchant tells us their stories, including how their backgrounds and interests led them to the artefact.

Also interesting is the effect that changing technologies impacted research into the artefact, especially with the development of more sophisticated imaging and computational tools. Marchant describes, in a scientific and lucid manner, how these tools work, and what sort of additional information they provided. She then also describes how the various persons involved in the story took whatever data their tools generated to try and explicate models, and why they came up with their various answers.

You can see Marchant's original news report published in Nature in 2006 , as well as the 2008 Nature review of Marchant's book (unfortunately subscription restricted). For those who don't have time to read Marchant's book, the original report, as well as some other resources on teh internets give a good overview of the mechanism and what it does. What those other resources miss, however, are the details of how we know what we know, and also fail to give a feeling for the actual workings of the mechanism. The Marchant book invaluably details how the various gears work and includes a couple of great diagrams that illustrate the mechanism's gears with annotations explaining their various purposes. The next best thing, and the origin for Marchant's gear diagram, is the important 2006 Nature paper, and which can be read here. Enjoy.

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