Response to criticisms of Decoding the Heavens

1. August 2009 11:49

Decoding the Heavens, paperback cover image

It seems that Decoding the Heavens is causing some controversy on the web. In recent weeks, some of the researchers working on the Antikythera mechanism, as well as Anne Bromley (second wife of the late Allan Bromley, another Antikythera researcher) have posted comments expressing concern about the way that certain parts of the book are presented.

As you'll know if you have read Decoding the Heavens, the Antikythera mechanism is an emotionally-charged area of research. All of the researchers involved have devoted years if not decades of their lives to solving its mysteries, and that has resulted in a fair amount of passion and rivalry. In fact without those driving forces they probably wouldn't have reached such impressive results. I for one am in awe of what they have each achieved, and in writing about their work, I'm proud to bring it to a wider audience.

But this also means that there are many disagreements between the various researchers regarding how different parts of the story unfolded, and where the credit for various different discoveries is due. I doubt that any single account could please everyone, but as a journalist I spoke at length to as many people as possible in order to reach my own careful and independent conclusions about what happened. In writing the book I've also tried to give a flavour of the various viewpoints, with different parts of the story seen through the eyes of different people, and it was important to me where possible to portray these scientists as human - reflecting their strengths and weaknesses rather than leaving them as bland, one-dimensional "heroes". I (and my publishers) stand by Decoding the Heavens as an honest and accurate account of the Antikythera story.

The majority of the researchers mentioned in the book are happy with the end result. But of course there are different perspectives and if you are interested in finding out about these then please do look at the comments from members of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (you can read them here). These researchers were very helpful and open when I first started reporting on the Antikythera mechanism, but I should note that after I told them in May 2007 that I planned to write a book, some members - Tony Freeth, Mike Edmunds, Yanis Bitsakis, Xenophon Moussas and John Seiradakis - declined to speak to me further (as noted in the acknowledgments of Decoding the Heavens). They said that to do so would conflict with their own plans for Antikythera books and media projects.

Tony Freeth was named to me as the AMRP team's spokesperson on any matters regarding Decoding the Heavens. I offered him the opportunity to comment on the two chapters regarding the team's work before publication but he declined, and in the nine months since the book came out, none of the team has mentioned any concerns about its content to either me or the publisher. I am sorry to hear at this stage that they believe there are inaccuracies, and any factual errors they raise now will of course be corrected in future reprints. I think though that most of the comments they have posted come down to differences in interpretation. For example, I refer to the AMRP group as Freeth's team, whereas they point out that Mike Edmunds was the academic leader of the team, who submitted papers and so on. This is technically correct (Edmunds held an academic position whereas Freeth originally did not), but none of the sources I spoke to were in any doubt that Freeth was the real driving force behind the project.

There are also several places where the AMRP researchers seem to have misunderstood my text. For example they attempt to correct my attribution on p. 101 of a treatise on the astrolabe to Geoffrey Chaucer, saying his authorship is not certain. In fact it is his authorship of a treatise on another astronomical instrument, the equatorium, that is in dispute (as discussed on the next page). His authorship of the astrolabe treatise is well accepted.

Finally, although some comments simply repeat points already made in the book, some do contain extra clarification or information. These are generally details that I chose not to burden the reader with. For example, the researchers note that when Hewlett Packard's Tom Malzbender and his colleagues (none of whom has raised any concerns about the book) flew to Athens "with their flashbulb dome packed in a crate", the dome was taken ahead by couriers rather than being on the same plane as the researchers. However these points may well be of interest to those wishing to dig deeper into events. I hope the team do go on to publish their own books as it will be great to have other versions of the story out there.

 Regarding Anne Bromley's comments about the way her late husband is portrayed (you can read these here), it was not my intention to describe him in a negative way, and I am genuinely surprised by her reaction. The impression I got of Allan Bromley during my research was of a brilliant, lively, forceful, friendly person, who could be manipulative and competitive at times, especially when it came to knowledge and information, but who got things done and was capable of sweeping others along with his enthusiasm. I hope this is the way he comes across in the book, and multiple sources who were close to Bromley in both the UK and Australia have said that they found my account reasonable and fair.

It's good to see Decoding the Heavens provoking discussion though. Please do read the comments and make up your own minds.


Comments (7) -

8/7/2009 10:47:00 PM #

By reading through the 77 (!) objections raised by the AMRP collaboration, one does not find a lot of relevant information. Do we really think that statements like this are of any interest to the reader: ---- “Tom Malzbender et al. flew across the sea from California with their flashbulb dome packed in a crate” -Objection- The PTM Dome was already in Athens, long before the HP Labs team arrived in Athens, carried by a couriering company. ---- If this is the kind of footnotes added to the Greek edition, we shall pity the poor Greek readers. What one notices, for sure, is a lot of resentment - Understandable: after much advertising the birth of the new Collaboration, their expensive instrumentation, great discoveries to come, they are finally confronted to:  - a complete mechanical model, as respectful of physical evidence as it can possibly be. - a very good and readable book, which perhaps stole the scene to the one they wanted to write. - a stunning virtual model, showing the inner wonders of the mechanism.  Each of these is the work of a single person, as compared to the 17+ members of the AMRP. The option apparently retained is:  - to discredit M. T. Wright work, which was done from the beginning. - to discredit Jo Marchant's book, however good it may be. - shall next target be M. Vicentini's virtual model ? Wait and see.

F. Soso Switzerland

9/24/2009 5:22:00 AM #

Dear Jo, As an avid reader of popular science books and journals, I have been aware of the existence of the Antikythera mechanism for some years, and immediately jumped at the chance to purchase and read your book as soon as I saw it reviewed in a magazine. From the outset it was clear that there were two obvious reasons for the relative obscurity of the mechanism, even in our 'information-rich' modern era: (1) research into the operation and capacity of the device was painstaking and exceedingly difficult, conducted by only a handful of experts; and (2) few writers had the skill or courage to present an overview of the discovery and study of this highly complex instrument. I would like to congratulate you for offering general readers such a clear and riveting glimpse into the hidden world of this mechanism, and for having the bravery to tackle a topic that most other science writers would evade. Your explanations of the astronomical justifications for various mechanical features, I am sure, must have been exceedingly difficult to research and articulate. As for subsequent 'corrections' that I have observed from various researchers whose work is mentioned in your book, the salient point is that you offered these researchers the opportunity to review the draft prior to publication, and they refused. In light of this refusal, their subsequent 'post-publication' comments are at best academically discourteous, at worst puerile. As an amateur lover of science and a lover of all books, I would like to reiterate my praise for your book and thank you for helping to demystify one of the greatest anomalies of the classical world.

John Power Australia

9/24/2009 11:33:00 AM #

I couldn't agree more! An outstanding work about a highly complex subject.

Francesca Hunter Australia

9/28/2009 6:10:00 PM #

Deat Ms Marchant,    Loved the book, having like John posting above long been curious about this ancient device and join my name to his observations on your book's merits. So a few academics now have their noses out of joint? It should happen more often. Let them produce a better account within a year to justify any reservations they may have.     The sympathetic treatment of the original diving team who recovered this treasure deserves particular commendation. They were pioneers and made 'errors' by current standards of underwater archaeological recovery: but this at a time when their contemporaries on land based excavations in archaeology and paleontology were not averse to using explosives to speed progress. Measured against the need to use cumbersome suits and a life threatening technique, their achievement was impressive, and your writing gives them proper credit.

Paul Jansz United Kingdom

12/31/2009 5:03:00 AM #

The book is excellent and the more so for the way that it exposes the whims of academic jealousy and the damage they do to scientific progress. A question about grammar - on page 254 "Beyond the technical ability implied by Freeth's scheme, everything changed too concerning the astronomical knowledge encoded in the mechanism." Should I add in a comma, or subtract an 'o'.  

Robert Arrell New Zealand

1/22/2010 2:36:00 PM #

Thought you might be interested in my correspondence re: Decoding ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Dear Gabrielle,  Tony Freeth told us that we should not include the reference to Marchant's because of what he said were a number of factual inaccuracies, which he listed on this web page:  Best regards,  Davide  > > From the files of the Not-So-Scientific American: > > Edison advised us not to cover anything written by or about Tesla, > so we won't. > > > > I would have been content with no response or with one which cited > limited space. I cannot let pass one that intentionally seeks to > limit the scientific knowledge base. > The author should have say over the content of his article. The > editorial staff should consider itself responsible for suggesting a > suitable range of further information on a topic, especially a "one > time only" topic like the Antikythera Mechanism. Marchant's book is > timely and informative. It also details some controversy. > Obviously, the author would not want it included. > A sociologist retired from the faculty of a medical school, I am > happy that my local public library has both Marchant's book and the > Scientific American. > Cheers, Gabrielle > > > > > > -----Original Message----- > From: Davide Castelvecchi <> > To: > Sent: Wed, Jan 20, 2010 2:08 pm > Subject: Re: letter to editor on Antikythera article > > > Dear Ms. D'Elia Shufeldt, > > > Thank you very much for your message. The author of the article, Tony > Freeth, advised us against including Jo Marchant's book in the "More to > Explore," so we didn't. > > > Best regards, > > > Davide > > > > > On Jan 20, 2010, at 12:16 PM, SA Editors wrote: > > > > > > > Begin forwarded message: > > > > From: > Date: November 24, 2009 8:31:28 AM EST > To: > Subject: letter to editor on Antikythera article > > > > > Dear Editors > > I enjoyed the Anitkythera article, especially as it continued the > battle of personalities, institutional links, and technologies which > apparently have long-characterized our understanding of the > mechanism. As understandable as the author's perspective is, the > editors are remiss in not adding to the list of further reading > (p.83), Jo Marchant's Decoding the Heavens: A 2000 Year Old Computer > and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets. This book can > be recommended both for its treatment of the mechanism itself and for > the somewhat contentious process of scientific discovery. > > Gabrielle D'Elia Shufeldt > > Springfield, IL > > > > > > > > > > > Davide Castelvecchi > Board of Editors > Scientific American > > > 212-451-8897 > 75 Varick Street > New York, NY 10013 > > > > > >

Gabrielle D'Elia Shufeldt United States

5/17/2010 8:49:00 AM #

John Power said most of what I intended to say here, but as a lifelong student of the physical sciences I wanted to say how -very- grateful I was to learn that a book on the subject was being published. I was delighted to read its answers to the many questions I'd had since I first read about Price's work.  Thank you for a wonderful explication and careful attention to the scientific detail as well as the human side. I was saddened by how long such science and technology had been occulted and how much humanity had to suffer before the knowledge was recovered. What a marvelous find the mechanism is! And it suggests that there's more!

Tony United States