the Antikythera machine, “the oldest computer in the world,” is said to have begun in -178 BC.

Tanguy Vallee

The Antikythera machine, considered the “oldest computer in the world”, continues to fascinate scientists. A new study analyzes the exact date on which it would have been put into service.

Discovered in 1901 in the heart of a Roman shipwreck stranded on the Greek island of the same name, the Antikythera machine it is, without a doubt, one of the oldest artifacts that most questions and intrigues the scientific community.

For more than a century, researchers have been trying to unravel the secrets of this mysterious shoe-sized mechanism, made up of gears and a sphere on which many tiny inscriptions are written. considered “the world’s oldest computer”.

Over the decades, scientists have been gathering dozens of fragments of the machine to understand its manufacturing process and its usefulness. Preliminary examinations have determined that it was a calculator used to predict events such as eclipses or phases of the moon.

How old is the “oldest computer in the world”?

Today, a new job could teach us more about this curious machine. In a study published on March 28 on the web arXiv, researchers say they have identified the exact date of “commissioning” of the mechanism, which is known to have been used more than 2,000 years ago. This accurate dating is assessed at 22 or 23 December 178 BC.

How did they come to such a conclusion? “To use a measuring instrument, a reference point is required, before the measuring procedure”the researchers write in their study.

It is thanks to a spiral shape embedded in the back of the mechanism that represents a 223-month cycle called Saros (which can be used to predict solar and lunar eclipses) that scientists have hypothesized that the machine was first used. during an annular solar eclipse. This phenomenon occurs when the Earth, Moon, and Sun are aligned, but the Moon does not cover the entire Sun, drawing a “ring of fire” -like outline.

From this track, researchers explored NASA data for all examples of annular solar eclipses that occurred during the estimated period of its conception. However, on December 23, 178 BC, a 12-minute annular eclipse may have been observed.

A hypothesis already discussed

This annular eclipse is not the only astronomical event that guided this research. A new moon phase began on December 22 and the winter solstice took place on December 23.

“One day too many astronomical events happened to be a coincidence. On that date, it was the new moon, the moon was at its peak, there was a solar eclipse, the Sun was entering the constellation of Capricorn, it was the winter solstice “indicates Aristeidis Voulgaris, archaeologist of the Directorate of Culture and Tourism of Thessaloniki in Greece and co-author of the study, for New Scientist.

“December 22/23, 178 BC is an ideal, functional and representative start date for calibrating the starting position of the mechanism’s pointers”advances researchers in their study.

However, this hypothesis is already widely discussed. And some even believe that the study would not withstand peer review, which has yet to be submitted. According to Alexander Jones, a professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University interviewed by LiveSciencepresent these works “many issues, from major issues to minor issues”that would be “symptomatic of lack of solid foundations in the context of ancient astronomy and science”.

According to him, the Saros cycle would not be as reliable as one might think when it goes back too far in the past. In addition, the above calculations have given very different results: in 2014, two studies rather evaluated the start-up of the machine in 204 BC But for Aristeidis Voulgaris, this would not explain the representations of winter from the solstice to the inscriptions on the machine. Therefore, the debate should remain open.

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