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Ancient Greeks Even Smarter Than Previously Thought

John Noble Wilford writes in the N.Y. Times about a strange contraption found in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece. It was discovered 100 years ago, and was known as “the world’s first computer,” but recent high-tech analyses have shown that the contraption was even more sophisticated than researchers first realized. The instrument, with gears and dials made of bronze, was apparently designed to calculate and plot out astronomical information, “particularly phases of the Moon and planetary motions.” It is thought to have been designed by the Greek astronomer Hipparchos. “Technology historians,” Wilford writes, “say the instrument is technically more complex than any known for at least a millennium afterward.”

Which leads to an obvious question: so why didn’t the technology move forward for an entire millennium? (If anyone out there has a good answer, please let us know.)

I found myself thinking a very similar question the other day, when I was in Chicago and visited the Field Museum. I went for the King Tut exhibit, which was okay, but found myself more interested in the exhibit on Gregor Mendel. You remember Mendel, from biology class — the friar/scientist whose study of pea plants in the 1850’s helped bring about our modern understanding of genetics.

Here’s what surprised me the most. In a timeline chronicling the human understanding of genetics, the first note was about the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, who proposed “that tiny particles from every part of the body of each parent became blended, producing an individual with the characteristics of both.” That sounds pretty modern, doesn’t it? But then, the timeline noted, “Aristotle dismisses Hippocrates’ theory, noting that children do not always resemble parents, and that people who have lost limbs through accidents produce ‘whole’ children.”

As with Hipparchos’s ancient “computer,” Hippocrates’s genetic theory was apparently just too far ahead of its time. Even by the time Mendel got to work on his peas, the world wasn’t quite ready. His research sat dormant for years, and wasn’t embraced until well after his death.