Nature editor Adam Rutherford wanted to see how a 2,000-year-old astronomical computation machine–called the Antikythera Mechanism–works. So he set Apple software engineer Andy Carol to the task of building one, using one of the most sophisticated construction systems humanity has ever devised: Lego. It took 30 days and 1,500 Lego Technic parts.
The gear-based machine was discovered in the early 1900s in a wrecked Roman merchant ship. Even after a century of study, it took the invention of CT scans to reconstruct the corroded device’s inner workings and understand how the complex machine operates, explains Nature:
The device … contained more than 30 bronze gearwheels and was covered with Greek inscriptions. On the front was a large circular dial with two concentric scales. One, inscribed with names of the months, was divided into the 365 days of the year; the other, divided into 360 degrees, was marked with the 12 signs of the zodiac.
Here’s the situation: You spot Roman attack ships headed for your shores. Do you order your troops to ready the cannons? Or–in an ancient MacGyver move–do you use a parabolic mirror, focusing the sun’s rays to set the ships on fire? Though the latter is clearly more suave, recent research has shown that the 212 B.C. legend about Archimedes’ mirror defense is unlikely: He probably pulled out the big guns instead.
Cesar Rossi, a mechanical engineer at the University of Naples in Italy, figured out the numbers. A steam cannon–like the ones Leonardo da Vinci drew in the 1400s–could use less than a tenth of a cup of water to fire a hollow clay ball, at 134 miles per hour, to hit a target 492 feet away. For comparison, an 1854 American Civil War Howitzer cannon could fire a ball about ten times farther–a little less than a mile.
As archaeologists dug up the ancient corpse, something looked a little off. For one, it didn’t have a head. Second, one of the skeleton’s arms looked like it supported a lot more muscle than the other. Third, it seemed a lion had chewed on it.
Meet a dead Roman gladiator. Archaeologists uncovered around eighty such skeletons in York, England over the past seven years. Though they admit that the 1,600- to 1,800-year-old corpses might have had other origins, the researchers say all signs point to the ancient circus. A decapitated corpse suggests that individual got a thumbs down from the jeering crowds, the mismatched arms signify much swordplay, and the bite marks imply that a lion, tiger, or bear had taken a taste in battle.
Michael Wysocki, who examined the remains in the forensic anthropology laboratory at the University of Central Lancashire, discussed those tell-tale bite marks with CNN:
“Nothing like them has ever been identified before on a Roman skeleton…. It would seem highly unlikely that this individual was attacked by a tiger as he was walking home from the pub in York 2,000 years ago,” he said.
One other clue comes from the fact that the skeletons, despite their violent lives and deaths, had what appears a ceremonial burial, resting in their graves with some great ancient goodies (i.e. horse bones and cow remains, the believed leftovers from a feast). Still, archeologists speculate that none of these fighters were the stars of their day, and that many bit the dust after only one or two battles.
Image: flickr / storem
The cargo from a Roman ship sunk off the coast of Sardinia more than 2,000 years ago will finally be put to use–it will become a shield for a neutrino detector. In Italy, 120 lead bricks recovered from the shipwreck will soon be melted to make a protective shield for Italy’s new neutrino detector, CUORE (Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events).
The ancient lead, which is useful because it has lost almost all traces of its natural radioactivity, has been transferred from a museum in Sardinia to the national particle physics laboratory at Gran Sasso. After spending two millennia on the seabed, the lead bricks will now be used in an experiment that will take place beneath 4,500 feet of rock.
Nature News writes:
Once destined to become water pipes, coins or ammunition for Roman soldiers’ slingshots, the metal will instead form part of a cutting-edge experiment to nail down the mass of neutrinos.
From slingshots to particle physics–we humans have come a long way in 2,000 years.