Science Museum Late

30 March 2022

Our Curator Anna Rolls writes:

I can’t quite believe that it has been two years since I last wrote about a Science Museum ‘Lates’, held at the end of February 2020 to celebrate the opening of the gallery ‘Science City 1550-1800’. Of course, just a couple of weeks later the Museum would close its doors to the public with all scheduled events put on hold as a result of Covid-19.

As such, it was really great to finally be able to partake in another Lates, this time to celebrate the Science Museum’s new temporary exhibition ‘Ancient Greeks: Science and Wisdom’, which explores the ancient Greeks’ mathematical approach to understanding the natural world.

The Lates programme highlighted the great variety on offer for attendees that evening, from lectures on Archimedes’ discoveries to an opportunity to play an intriguing instrument based on Pythagoras’ discovery of octaves. There was no time to try these activities out for Team Clockmakers’, as Liveryman Robert Lamb, Freeman Chris Andrews and I were kept busy for the evening giving short tours of the Clockmakers’ Museum, where we focused on astronomical timekeeping through the ages. This was in recognition of the 2000-year-old astronomical calculating machine discovered on a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea in 1901 and known as the Antikythera mechanism; current research on which features in the exhibition.

A group from University College London who are part of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Team, also came along for the evening to run a series of workshops related to their research. Led by Dr Adam Wojcik and PhD candidates Aris Dacanalis and Liveryman David Higgon, the workshops gave eventgoers to opportunity to learn a whole lot more about the mechanism and how it may have been created.

In one area a large screen displayed an X-ray “volume” of its largest fragment; X-ray slices stacked together which the public were able to scroll through to see different layers of the fragment and the secrets it contains. At another station the team had 3D printed a set of gears which could be put together in different formations, with a quiz aimed at getting the public to think about the speed and direction of rotation of their set-up.

Retrograde motion of the planets, and how the ancient Greeks interpreted this planetary motion in a geocentric world was tackled in another area. David Higgon had created a very elegant model which showed how the Antikythera mechanism’s gearing was able to display this motion. A different station explored how the ancient Greeks might have cut the teeth of the mechanism’s wheels, with the public trying their hand at filing some Victorian pennies. These coins were for a brief period made with the same low-tin bronze as used in the mechanism, and gave the audience a realistic feel of how difficult it might have been to cut the original teeth when they stood at just 1.5mm tall. The final table explored how the ancient Greeks might have divided a circle into a given number of spaces in the absence of finely calibrated measuring instruments. Astronomical gear-work often uses wheels with a prime number of teeth, and dividing a circle into this number is very hard. The team have come up with a method for how the makers of the mechanism might have achieved this using just three basic tools; a pair of fixed dividers, a straight-edge and a pair of compasses. As David commented, it is ‘schoolboy geometry the Greeks would have been proud of!’

The night was a great success, helped in part by the great enthusiasm of an audience mostly in their 20s and 30s. People were genuinely engaged by all the events on offer and it was great to see so many people back inside the museum.

Curator of The Clockmakers' Museum, Anna Rolls

Model made by Liveryman David Higgon. Photograph: Anna Rolls