the unbearable lightness of LEGO

Inlovejenluc Is there anything LEGO can't build? Jen-Luc Piquant is positively giddy over a recent find while trawling Twitter. It seems science journalist Adam Rutherford (who once visited us here in Los Angeles and got to be all fabulous, attending film premieres and all) and some pals have put together a behind-the-scenes video of a guy who built a working replica of the famed (in certain circles) Antikythera Mechanism — entirely out of LEGOs.

Allow me to plagiarize one of my own earlier posts to give you a bit of background. In 1900, a Greek sponge diver named Elias Stadiatis discovered the wreck of an ancient cargo ship off the coast of Antikythera island in Greece. He and other divers recovered all kinds of artifacts from the ship. A year later, an archaeologist was studying what he thought was just a piece of rock recovered from the shipwreck, and noticed there was a gear wheel embedded in it. It turned out to be an ancient mechanical device — perhaps the earliest example of a geared device — now known as the Antikythera mechanism and housed in the Bronze Collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. The device was originally housed in a wooden box roughly the size of a shoebox, with dials on the outside and containing a complex assembly of gear wheels within. Its very existence offers strong evidence that such technology existed as early as 150-100 BC but the knowledge was subsequently lost. Similar machines with equivalent complexity didn't appear again until the 18th century.

Antikythera_mechanismpreview It took decades just to clean it off, and in 1951, a British science historian named Derek J. de Solla Price began his life's work investigating the theoretical workings of the device. Based on X-ray photographs of the fragments, he published a handful of minor papers before the first major paper appeared in Scientific American in June 1959.

Entitled "An Ancient Greek Computer," the article detailed Price's hypothesis that the mechanism had been used to calculate the motions of stars and planets — making it the first known analog computer.  A November 30, 2006, article in Nature included a new reconstruction of the device based on the high-resolution X-ray tomography conducted by the study. Based on the new discoveries, the mechanism has been pretty much confirmed to be an astronomical computer used to predict the positions of heavenly bodies in the sky.

And here's where the LEGO comes in, because now that the Antikythera Mechanism has been cleaned off, x-rayed, and reconstructed (at least on paper), those "blueprints" could be used to build a real working model with moving parts and everything. Out of plastic building blocks. The ancient Greeks didn't have LEGOs, otherwise I'm sure they would have done exactly what Andy Carol did. Per the Small Mammals blog:

This is a 2000-year-old analog computing device reconstructed out of Lego. It predicts solar and lunar eclipses, accurate to within two hours — all using plastic gears. Andy Carol, its designer, builds mechanical computers out of Lego as a hobby. He made this device basically because Adam Rutherford, an editor and producer at Nature, dared him to. When Adam heard that Andy had actually built the device, he called me and said, “Well, clearly we have to make some sort of film about this thing now.”

That was almost a year ago.

Read on to find out exactly how they did it. A year they spent on this — just the film part! — and the painstaking effort and professionalism definitely shows. This is so many kinds of win, I really have nothing much to say about it, other than to go all Keanu on you: "Whoa. Duuuudes….." Adam et al., you are my heroes.

5 thoughts on “the unbearable lightness of LEGO”

  1. What a brilliant piece of Lego engineering and the original is awe-inspiringly stunning. But I still have a sinking feeling the original might eventually be proved to be a hoax; it seems just too good and too unlikely. Hope I’m wrong about that tho’.

  2. How could that kind of technical knowledge become so advanced and then become lost for 2000 years?
    It makes me think that maybe we did land on earth from another planet.

  3. Archimedes was well on the way to having a working calculus and as a hobby he dabbled in gear trains! It is pretty well documented that this technology was available in the centuries BCE. The tragedy is that it took until the 1400s for European clock makers to resurrect the technology back up to the level of the Greeks. And it only took 300 years after Newton finally had the real calculus that we landed on the moon. So, if we had listened to Archimedes instead of Aristotle and Euclid our species could have landed on the moon in 100 BCE! And, no, I will not tell you what I am smoking!

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