05 December, 2006

Fits And Starts

Michel W. Barsoum, a professor of materials engineering at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, believes he has evidence that the great pyramids of Giza were partly constructed from concrete. It is a disputed claim at the moment but if true, it would mean that the Egyptians were building with concrete 4,500 years ago – 2,500 years before the Romans used it. It would mean that the technology of making concrete and the engineering skills around using it have come and gone at least a couple of times in human history and possibly many times more.

In an unrelated but similar finding, Tony Freeth and Mike G. Edmunds, of the University of Cardiff, along with researchers in Greece and the USA have X-rayed the Antikythera mechanism and now know a lot more about its construction. This amazing device is a brass calculating machine with perhaps 37 cogs that was used to calculate the Moon’s position in the sky, based on theoretical work by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchos. The mechanism was probably made between 150 and 100 BC. Nothing as sophisticated as this was made again until a thousand years later. Another example of technology and engineering skills gained and lost. Think about 4,000 year-old ceramics, metallurgy, navigation, astronomy, architecture – all of it discovered and lost and discovered again, sometimes several times over.

Mostly, when they hear tales of ancient technical sophistication, people react with surprise and astonishment that anyone could have thought of these things so long ago. It’s as if they believe that human intelligence has increased over the millennia. Or as though ancient scientists and engineers were like precocious children, being unnaturally clever – cute, even. When I hear such tales I feel either sadness or fear.

The sadness comes from the realisation that, if it had not been for wars and religious insanity, the knowledge of ancient peoples could have been accumulating for all these centuries instead of huge chunks of it being wiped out over and over again. The rapacious craving for power that drives us, continues to destroy our finest works. The madness of religion continues to make people attack those who work to understand the world.

The fear comes from a realisation of how fragile human knowledge is. It takes so long for a civilisation to achieve the wealth and stability needed to begin to accumulate understanding. And it takes but a moment for an invader to come in and crush it, or a religion or political ideology to rise up and burn the books. Even in a global civilisation like ours, with knowledge duplicated all over the world, even a half-hearted nuclear war, a carelessly released genetically-engineered pathogen, a religious revival, a slide into climate-change-induced poverty, could wipe out all we’ve learned almost overnight.

The fact is that knowledge isn’t power. Power, as Mao said, comes from the barrel of a gun. Knowledge is a delicate and beautiful porcelain tower that any old jack-boot can kick down.

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