Nanobots Versus The Ancient Greeks

19/08/2011 22:33 BST | Updated 18/10/2011 10:12 BST

I've just been reading an article about nanorobotics. The extreme, but nonetheless likely, concept of nanotechnology is the "bottom up" creation of virtually any material or object by assembling it one atom at a time. It has far reaching implications for the future and will effect just about everything in our day to day lives. Imagine, a quick visit to the NanoStore on your phone, download the Coffee-Bot app and hey presto; the perfect hot drink every time. A uniquely crafted beverage courtesy of the billions of atom stacking magicians. Amazing.

Of course, for now, this is the stuff of fiction but I am not alone when I say that I find advances in technology both exciting and a be-all and end-all playground for human scientific achievement.

At least, that's what I thought until two days ago.

After casually perusing a magazine, I learned about a piece of technology so mechanically advanced that its discovery revolutionised both science and astronomy in a profound way. It's called the Antikythera Mechanism and was raised from the sea bed in 1901 near the island of Antikythera, half way between Crete and Greece. It is believed to be a sophisticated astronomical computer with an array of bronze dials displaying the positions of stars and planets while accurately showing dates, times, solar and lunar eclipses. It's even said to have charted key moments from the first Olympic Games.

You're possibly wondering why such an apparatus supersedes the soon-to-be-invented atomic-latte app? Well, analysis suggests that the mechanism dates back to 120BC and the complexity of the internal cogs and dials are comparable to an early 19th Century computer. In other words, it is precision science two millennia early.

Assuming there was no extra-terrestrial intervention, the ancient Greeks created a multi-geared device so complex and precise that it accurately predicts the solar eclipse on 8th April 2024 at exactly 16:30 GMT; an event now scientifically established. In fact, it's such a intensely sophisticated piece of engineering that some believe it to be an elaborate hoax. It's not. It's a proven discovery of immense mathematical and technological expertise. Two thousand years old.

The question is, what happened to the subsequent march of progress? Why was this leap in technology not refined and improved upon at the exponential rates similar to those we witness today? What secrets led to its disappearance leaving the rest of the world with antiquated sundials and star charts? And why was Edmund Halley caught out by a solar eclipse accurately foreseen by the Antikythera Mechanism seventeen centuries earlier? Surely one thousand seven hundred years was more than enough time to create a version small enough to be slipped in to his breast pocket?

We don't know where or how the ancient Greeks acquired their knowledge to build such an instrument and we certainly don't know how their greatest invention ended up at the bottom of the sea. But we do know that the whole episode is shrouded in tantalising mystery. And here's the truth. Sophisticated nanobots are waiting in a scientific future I am expecting but the phenomena of the Antikythera Mechanism is locked away in a technologically advanced past that I wasn't. And that makes it a far more soul-stirring proposition. Don't get me wrong, I'm still looking forward to a time when I never have to put the kettle on again thanks to our perfectly choreographed atomic friends. But I'd trade it all to know the truth surrounding ancient Greece's greatest scientific mystery.

Which me leads to a final thought for those frustrated technophobes who believe that modern technology has moved too fast. If the Antikythera Mechanism has proved anything it's that modern technology hasn't moved fast enough.