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Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World's First Computer [Hardcover]

Jo Marchant
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)

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Book Description

6 Nov 2008
In 1900 a group of sponge divers blown off course in the Mediterranean discovered an Ancient Greek shipwreck dating from around 70 BC. Lying unnoticed for months amongst their hard-won haul was what appeared to be a formless lump of corroded rock, which turned out to be the most stunning scientific artefact we have from antiquity. For more than a century this 'Antikythera mechanism' puzzled academics, but now, more than 2000 years after the device was lost at sea, scientists have pieced together its intricate workings. Unmatched in complexity for 1000 years, it was able to predict eclipses and track the paths of the Sun and the Moon through the zodiac, and probably even showed ancient astronomers the movements of the five known planets. In Decoding the Heavens, Jo Marchant tells for the first time the story of the 100-year quest to understand this ancient computer. Along the way she unearths a diverse cast of remarkable characters - ranging from Archimedes to Jacques Cousteau - and explores the deep roots of modern technology not only in ancient Greece but in the Islamic world and medieval Europe too.At heart an epic adventure story, it is a book that challenges our assumptions about technology transfer over the ages while giving us fresh insights into history itself.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd (6 Nov 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 043401835X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0434018352
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 13.2 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 560,566 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Review, 4/16/10 "Spirit and fascination fully informs [Marchant's] book""Tucson Citizen", 4/30/10 "[A] highly readable book...An adventure that blends ample portions of fate, historic intrigue, and modern scientific innovation." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Book Description

The fascinating story of the discovery of, and subsequent quest to decode, the world's first computer --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An epic (history changing) story, well told 13 Nov 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
when I recieved this book I was disappointed by the lack of detailed photographs or illustrations of the Antikythera device. This is not so much a book about the device, but the story of its discovery and recognition.

The story is told as a series of biographies of the people who have helped to bring the device to light. I found the story increasingly compelling as each of the characters was brought to life. The story provides the rich context necessary for appreciating their contributions.

Discovery of the Antikythera device pushes "modern" technology right back into ancient history, as the sleve note says - "At heart an epic adventure story... ". (well told and true I would like to add).

I would recommend anyone to read this book, before looking for the photos, Xrays and illustrations to explain the Antikythera device. I think I may have learned a great deal about the device from this book, without noticing I was doing it. The story is so captivating the technicalities seem to be absorbed without effort.

It probably does help to have some understanding of astronomy and calendars to appreciate some of the technical stuff, but for me, the story could make a great film ! The book makes a great read.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Across the universe.... 29 Sep 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A delightful book that you'll read from cover to cover in no time at all. I suspect however, that if you're anything like me, the memories 'Decoding the Heavens' will unlock and the wide-eyed enthusiasm it will awaken will last with you for a very long time. The narrative unfolds like a well-crafted documentary revealing the discovery of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of a small Greek island in 1901 and the complex web of personal sacrifice, competition and politics during the following 100 years which leads to a pretty thorough understanding of the world's first computer - the 'Antikythera Mechanism'.

I won't spoil the 'plot' just in case you haven't read up that closely on all of the amazing things this device could do, but suffice to say, it humbles inventions made a millennium later and demonstrates an incredible knowledge of the cosmos and miniature engineering that would have transformed our planet if this evolutionary branch-line in human ingenuity hadn't died out. Perhaps we'd be beginning our journeys to the stars today instead of just photographing them.

This book made me feel like a kid again: I want to look at the stars on a clear night; I want to build things with wheels and gears; I want to teach my first child ( due the next few days hopefully ) about the history of our species, about the interplay of myth and technology that for better or worse has always driven us on.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I purchased this book after reading a five star review in a well known astronomy magazine. The book lives up to expectation, being a very good read without too many technicalities. It provides an excellent explanation of what the Antikythera mechanism was, suggests who might have been responsible for creating it, and gives an insight into the characters who unravelled its mysteries. One very minor niggle is that one or two exploded diagrams would have helped to explain the workings better. Overall, though, it is warmly recommended.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sloppy standards make for poor prose 7 April 2010
Whilst this book is an interesting read, those purchasing it would do well to do some research regarding the Antikythera Mechanism, and the teams that worked on it- as there seems to be some dispute between the author and the research team as to its accuracy.

There also seems to be concern that one of the scientists written about has not been portayed in a fair manner, to the extent that his widow and friends have constructed a webpage disputing the facts of the book and publishing their memories of the man. One of the most striking is the fact that the author even fails to get the date the man died right. This is, at the very least, extremely disrespectful and disappointing from a woman who describes herself as a journalist and leads me to question the value of this book as a narrative account of events.

In response, the author claims that the proofs were submitted to a member of the team for checking. This seems a poor defence- especially when it is considered that there were many people the author did not interview who could have helped- and as a freelance researcher myself, I would like to stress to her that if you are not sure of your facts, then you should not put your name to them. And it is not too hard to check basic astronometrical details such as how many degrees the sun traverses a day (just over one- which is why we have a year 365.25 days long). All in all, disappointing and had I actually bought rather than borrowed this book, I would be writing and asking for a refund from the publisher.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This book tells three stories. The first is about the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism. This reads like an adventure story; not one of the most exciting ones, but it is certainly interesting. The second is about the unraveling of what it was for. It is this latter story that has radically changed our view of ancient technology and astronomy. This stories has been, and still is to some extent, surrounded by controversy. The book tells how initially the Antikythera mechanism was studied by few people, and more or less ignored by most other researchers. This did not really change when it slowly became clear how sophisticated it was. In fact, this was simply not believed. The third story is the description of the mechanism itself. The author does this in quite some detail. This story is not finished, because not all of the details of how it originally looked like are known.

Some reviewers have written that the author has been very sloppy in his research. As this book was really my first encounter with the Antikythera mechanism, I don't know if this is really true. It did increase my interest in the subject however. So I do recommend the book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The Antikythera story
This is the story of the Antikythera mechanism - a computer that no-one believed could exist. A Greek machine that is an object out of place. Read more
Published 5 days ago by Oldsirhippy
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
This is an unusual book but very good and a smashing read good for those interested in engineering or any such subjects
Published 5 months ago by Glenda Liess
5.0 out of 5 stars Almost unbelievable
5 stars because the book is written in such a way that even someone with no mechanological knowledge can read and understand the book. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Aristeidis
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent quality
I've been fascinated by this mechanism ever since I learned of its existence, but not as fascinated as the researchers in the book who devoted their whole lives to it. Read more
Published 8 months ago by A. Horner
4.0 out of 5 stars Successfully decoded
A thoroughly entertaining book about one man's struggle to bring to the attention of the world the possibility that the ancient Greeks possessed a knowledge of celestial... Read more
Published 8 months ago by max sexton
5.0 out of 5 stars A strange device found.
A joy to read the facts, how it was understood and reproduction of this most strange device ever found by chance in the sea.
Published 12 months ago by Sid
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable book
I really enjoyed reading this book. I kept turning pages and finished it off very fast, since it is very clearly written. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Calvin
5.0 out of 5 stars Worlds First Computer
Bought for my husband following programme on television. He was fascinated and unable to put it down. Many thanks for your speed and promptitude
Published 14 months ago by Caroline
3.0 out of 5 stars Bogged down in science
Worthy but stuffy account of a fascinating discovery - but read it for the human interest too. My heart goes out to Michael Wright, the true hero of this book.
Published 15 months ago by Mr
5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting read
This book was a present for my husband. He found the book an exciting and excellently well written account of the subject. Read more
Published 17 months ago by janete
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