The Technium

Anachronistic Science

I’ve been wondering why science took so long to appear. Why didn’t China, which invented so many other things in the first millennial, just keep on going and invent science by 1000 AD? For that matter why didn’t the Greeks invent the scientific method during their heyday? What were they missing?

As Carl Sagan declares in his book (and TV series) “Cosmos” : “Writings about fossils, gems, earthquakes, and volcanoes date back to the Greeks, more than 2300 years ago. Certainly, the most influential Greek philosopher was Aristotle. Unfortunately, Aristotle’s explanations of the natural world were not derived from keen observations and experiments, as in modern science. Instead, they were arbitrary pronouncements based on the limited knowledge of his day.”

But they could have been, even back then. Aristotle appears to have lacked no materials which would have prevented him from doing simple experiments and observations. There were many things he could not see without telescope and microscope, but there is still hundreds, thousands, if not millions of things he could have measured with tools he did have. But he did not because he didn’t have the mindset.


We know that if a modern scientist today were sent back in time 2,300 years to the early Greek city states he or she could easily gather measurable data, and set up experiments with controls. In fact in the BBC produced a cool reality show called Rough Science that deposited scientists onto an island and had them create modern instruments such a telephone, phonograph, radio, etc., using materials found on the island. To make this crude anachronistic versions of modern technology the experts had to employ the scientific method with primitive tools. In some cases, their tools and materials were no better than what a wealthy Greek philosopher might have been able to get hold of in 300 BC.

It’s not just simple things. Danny Hillis made a computer out of tinkertoys, a computer that the Greeks could have built, if they had thought of it. It would have been of no use to them, but the Greeks often dabbled in “useless” mathematical and philosophical knowledge. There are thousands of sophisticated technologies the Greeks could have produced with their tools, but did not because the tech was too many steps removed from everything else they were doing.


Hard science fiction author Greg Egan believes that even the theory of relativity could be deduced by a pre-industrial society, a case he makes in his new novel, Incandescence. As he says on his website (edited here):

“Incandescence” grew out of the notion that the theory of general relativity – widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of human intellectual achievement – could be discovered by a pre-industrial civilization with no steam engines, no electric lights, no radio transmitters, and absolutely no tradition of astronomy.

At first glance, this premise might strike you as a little hard to believe. We humans came to a detailed understanding of gravity after centuries of painstaking astronomical observations, most crucially of the motions of the planets across the sky…

How, then, could my alien civilization possibly reach the same conceptual heights, when they were armed with none of these apparent prerequisites? The short answer is that they would need to be living in just the right environment: the accretion disk of a large black hole… My aliens would probably need to be sheltering deep inside some rocky structure to protect them from the radiation of the accretion disk – and the glow of the disk itself would also render astronomy immensely difficult.

Blind to the heavens, how could they come to learn anything at all about gravity, let alone the subtleties of general relativity? After all, didn’t Einstein tell us that if we’re free-falling, weightless, in a windowless elevator, gravity itself becomes impossible to detect?

Not quite! To render its passenger completely oblivious to gravity, not only does the elevator need to be small, but the passenger’s observations need to be curtailed in time just as surely as they’re limited in space. Given time, gravity makes its mark. Forget about black holes for a moment: even inside a windowless space station orbiting the Earth, you could easily prove that you were not just drifting through interstellar space, light-years from the nearest planet. How? Put on your space suit, and pump out all the station’s air. Then fill the station with small objects – paper clips, pens, whatever – being careful to place them initially at rest with respect to the walls.

Wait, and see what happens.

Most objects will eventually hit the walls; the exact proportion will depend on the station’s spin. But however the station is or isn’t spinning, some objects will undergo a cyclic motion, moving back and forth, all with the same period.

That period is the orbital period of the space station around the Earth. The paper clips and pens that are moving back and forth inside the station are following orbits that are inclined at a very small angle to the orbit of the station’s center of mass. Twice in every orbit, the two paths cross, and the paper clip passes through the center of the space station. Then it moves away, reaches the point of greatest separation of the orbits, then turns around and comes back.

This minuscule difference in orbits is enough to reveal the fact that you’re not drifting in interstellar space. A sufficiently delicate spring balance could reveal the tiny “tidal gravitational force” that is another way of thinking about exactly the same thing, but unless the orbital period was very long, you could stick with the technology-free approach and just watch and wait.

A range of simple experiments like this – none of them much harder than those conducted by Galileo and his contemporaries – were the solution to my aliens’ need to catch up with Newton. But catching up with Einstein? Surely that was beyond hope?

I thought it might be, until I sat down and did some detailed calculations. It turned out that, close to a black hole, the differences between Newton’s and Einstein’s predictions would easily be big enough for anyone to spot without sophisticated instrumentation.

What about sophisticated mathematics? The geometry of general relativity isn’t trivial, but much of its difficulty, for us, revolves around the need to dispose of our preconceptions. By putting my aliens in a world of curved and twisted tunnels, rather than the flat, almost Euclidean landscape of a patch of planetary surface, they came better prepared for the need to cope with a space-time geometry that also twisted and curved.

The result was an alternative, low-tech path into some of the most beautiful truths we’ve yet discovered about the universe.

If anachronistic science occurs in the past, then by definition there must be future technology that we are capable of creating today, if only we knew how. For instance, I have a public Long Bet prediction that in 2075 some smart high school kids will be able to cobble together a working artificial intelligence from vintage 2005 hardware unearthed in landfills. Using only materials that we have today, and a lot of new software, a perfectly good AI could be made. If true, that means that in theory we could make an AI today with the chips and hardware we already have. We are just missing the know-how to hook them up.

Similarly, we might be able to make an anti-gravity machine with the materials and technology we have today, if only we knew how. The major problem is that we don’t know what technologies can be time shifted (and we know almost nothing about gravity). But we can be sure by simple statistics that some technologies can be shifted.  It’s amazing how powerful “knowing that it can work” can be. It’s worth at least 100 IQ points.

Imagine that in possibility space of knowledge the point “Greek logic” sits directly adjacent to “Greek computation,” but separated by a deep chasm. Only a small set of knowledge separates them, but that short distance in knowledge took 20 centuries to cross. Perhaps it is the same today with “2005 hardware” and “2005 AI.” Ordinarily there is no way to transverse that gap. But I wonder if there are techniques which would allow us to scientifically tunnel through to those adjacent places, where all that is separating the positions is “knowing it can  work”?

  • ghost

    Too trigger-happy. Sorry for this follow-up.

    What I wanted to say was that your examples of anti-gravity machine and artificial intelligence as inventions of the future are limited by your knowledge of today the same way the ancient Greeks’ knowledge of the day prevented them from thinking of a computer. What comes after 200 years will be something that only a mind of that time will be able to imagine and not a mind of this, current, today’s time.

  • David Newland

    I love speculating about the technologies of the ancient world. My personal favourite example is the ice lens: you can use your hands to form a “magnifying glass” of ice that properly made, will allow you to start a fire. We assume only someone who has seen a magnifying glass would think of making such a thing… but there’s nothing to say it wasn’t a technique known by our ancestors 100,000 years ago. Especially because the evidence melts.

    For a more macro view, check out – Wally Wallington’s applications of simple lifting and moving techniques are among the most amazing things you’ll ever see. Far from removing the mystery of the pyramids, Stonehenge, etc. his techniques add to the wonder of the peoples who made them.

    • @David: I agree about Wallington’s moving techniques. They sure appear to be easily discoverable with low tech.

  • tahrey

    Thinking about that long bet … just look at some of the rather exceptional things hobby programmers can now make early to mid 80s hardware achieve just with a bit of know-how, experimentation – and inspiration from the current multimedia age, when a lot of the software at the time was flat out awful. and that’s just 25 years. treble it and your AI will come… on 2000 hardware, not 2005… and will shame the Quake II bots which were the pinnacle of artificial behaviour on the same machines. And if that’s capable of a functional human-level intelligence, they’ll probably be able to take the same mid-80s-ish hardware and crank out a reasonable analogue of a small rodent’s behaviour.

  • Duffy Toler

    >>I have a public Long Bet prediction that in 2075 some smart high school kids will be able to cobble together a working artificial intelligence from vintage 2005 hardware

    This is a brilliant insight, which I think is probably correct. It seems like some advanced form of machine consciousness should be able to run on contemporary hardware, considering what we able to do with much less than that just a few decades ago, and extrapolating forward to now. Where’s Hal? Why am I not discussing politics and relationships with my desktop computer?

  • Peter Turney

    Science has evolved slowly over thousands of years, and it is continuing to evolve. Science is a diverse collection of heuristics, methods, and paradigms. There is a common core to the branches of science, but the periphery of the methods and paradigms of (say) psychology is quite different from the (say) physics. The ancient Greeks had a relatively advanced science of astronomy. They were able to calculate the circumference of the Earth and the length of the year with reasonable precision. The ancient Chinese had a relatively advanced science of metallurgy. The bronze castings of the Shang Dynasty show very fine details. In modern science, we see the increasing mathematization of all branches of science, spreading from physics to psychology, sociology, and biology. In my own field, computational linguistics, I’ve seen a steady increase in statistical methods over the last decade. If you look more closely at science, you will see that it is a huge, complicated, many faceted thing, that has been growing and changing for a long time, and continues to grow and change.

  • Peter Turney

    Where I say “science” in my previous comment, read “scientific method”. You say “why didn’t the Greeks invent the scientific method”, but my point is that there is no such thing as “the” scientific method. For example, the methods that are suitable for astronomy are not necessarily helpful for metallurgy. I took us a long time to see the abstract core that is shared by astronomy-scientific-method and metallurgy-scientific-method.

    • @Peter, thanks for your comments. I could not agree more that science is an evolving structure. See my earlier postings on the History and Future of the Scientific method. As I point out such “core” elements in the scientific method as we know it — such as the double blind experiment — was not invented until the last half century. Early science would hardly warrant that term from us now. Nonetheless, while the Greeks had a few elements, they never pursued the development further and it seems to me they could have. The reasons were abstract themselves — belief systems, political systems — but not lack of knowledge or materials.

      @ Adam: what a wonderful story, even if it is fiction! I’d love to hear an actual story where knowing it could be done triumphed.

  • Peter Turney

    “Danny Hillis made a computer out of tinkertoys, a computer that the Greeks could have built, if they had thought of it.”

    They did: look for “Antikythera mechanism” on Wikipedia.

    (Sorry to leave three comments. I wish I could merge them or edit them.)

    • @Peter: Re the Antikythera Mechanism. My impression was that this was a very complex clock or perhaps an astronomical calculator. A visit to Wikipedia has not changed that impression, but I do admit that I may not have a very good distinction between a calculator and computer.

  • Adam Holland

    Re: the IQ boost from “knowing it can be done”.

    There is a fun oldstory (sorry, I cannot remember the title or author) about a “cultural exchange/ friendly contest” of teams of engineers between Earth and an alien civilization with whom we have begin to interact / trade with.
    Each side claims to be participating in the spirit of goodwill, but is in fact only involved in order to demonstrate the superiority of their culture’s science and engineering, and maybe to steal some good ideas.

    Each planet’s team is presented with a series of devices unique to the other’s civilization, that represent the pinnacle of their acheivement.
    They are told what the devices do, and allowed to take them apart.
    They then have to try to create a device that does the same thing, using their own tech.

    Of course, it turns out at the end that each planet rigged things, but creating “impossible” devices, in the hopes of embarrassing the other.
    The aliens say “Boy, we were really stumped for a while by your perpetual motion machine. We figured out what everything was for except the little black box. so eventually, we ignored it.”
    (dumbfounded humans) “That was the disguised external power supply. It was a fake.”
    but, of course the aliens’ version is for real.

    The humans, knowing it can be done, because they believe they are looking at it being done in front of them, successfully make anti-gravity, followed by a similar revelation on the part of the alien scientists.

  • Bill Burris

    What would the world be like today, if the majority of people alive now, had a basic understanding of the scientific method?

  • Zbigniew Lukasiak

    This is a very speculative thought – but I would link the scientific method with the practice of courts of law. In both there is the idea of resolving disputes by appealing to some external power. And Rene Girard links courts of law to rejecting the scapegoat mechanism of resolving internal conflicts – this would be a good reason why science was started in the Christian civilisation.

  • Nic Hodges

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for another wonderful entry. This one definitely got me thinking. Working in the creative field I love the idea of trying to work in a future mindset to overcome almost subconcious limitations we put on our ideas.

    I found it so fascinating I even had to write a blog post, at if you’re interested.


  • Sam Arbesman


    Adam’s short story is great. But there is actually a simple example of knowing that something can be done makes it possible, albeit on a much more trivial scale: homework!

    It is a lot easier to solve problems in homework (since the assumption is that it can be done using the tools recently learned) than actual research, where the techniques are not necessarily known, and the problems are not always solvable. It’s for this reason that sometimes students, not knowing they are being given a very difficult problem in the guise of a homework problem, can actually solve it. For example, back in 1996, two high school math students found a new proof for a Euclidean theorem – even though only a single proof had been known for the 2000 years since Euclid proved it! (“Teen Math Whizzes Go Euclid One Better,” by Gautam Naik. Wall Street Journal, 9 December 1996.) On a related note, from what I remember, Hopcroft and Ullman’s classic theory of computation textbook “Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation” contains more than a few exercises that are still open problems in theoretical computer science. Which I suppose is one way to get them solved.

  • Tom Buckner

    When I consider the cosmology of certain Eastern creeds (especially Buddhism and Taoism) I suspect that somehow, roughly contemporary with Archimedes, monks off in Asia were indeed intuitng science of twenty centuries hence. The idea of “asankheya kalpas” (asankheya being a very big number) and (kalpa being a cycle of creation, the lifetime of the stars themselves) is eerily similar to this fresh Scientific American article:

    And Taoism is very much to do with cycles, insisting as it does that when anything reaches an extreme point it must reverse. I see that principle all around me.

    But this isn’t really news. For whatever reason, I feel the need to point a finger toward technologies of intelligence amplification. Some of these are very old: the Greeks had mnemonists whose prodogious recall owed to such techniques as mentally placing objects around an imagined room. Newer approaches exist and are underappreciated (I think). Here are two that have caught my attention:

    Emotional Freedom Technique ( ) which can be considered a meld of neurolinguistic programming and acupuncture. You can learn the basics for free and go into depth for cheap.

    Win Wenger’s Image Streaming and other techniques. Win Wenger is an educator with decades of experience and a number of books. He advocates such intriguing approaches as vividly imagining that your solution is behind a door in a garden wall, letting the unconscious mind work on the problem. This sort of stuff is known to work at least for some; Tesla would run motors in his mind and then disassemble them to see how the parts wore out. “But Tesla was a prodigy,” you may object. Wenger takes the position that the methods work for anyone who really tries them. I think he’s right. Again, you can read a lot of it for free.

  • lucychili

    Perhaps Archimedes made experimentation unfashionable by running through town in unsagelike enthusiasm =)

    Perhaps the evidence of individual experimentation is less evident after all this time, and also indicates a moment of not knowing which might not have been a public process.

    Cooking, fabric, paper, dyeing, architecture, agriculture, ceramics, jewellery all require experimentation with the properties of materials, their chemistry and physics in order to advance.
    There was no problem with the development of these skills. Perhaps you are looking for evidence of scientific practice in the wrong societal roles.

    We probably recognise scientific method when it looks like a document with a speaker attached. A specialist not an integrated trade. Perehaps it might be time for us to be thinking with our fingertips again. We certainly need to reconnect with custodianship and ecology which seems to be a blind spot in our current model.

  • Bob Welch

    Here’s something that , over my 63 years, I have come to believe; there already EXISTS 1. Very high-functioning “A.I” 2.Zero-Point (so called “free”) energy systems 3. “Anti-Gravity” systems which are robust, WORKING, and far FAR beyond any simply theoretical stage.

    Where then , ARE these systems ?..They are IN, the “U.S.A.P.’s” or Unacknowledged Special Access Projects, which are the “need to know” “black budget” projects funded by billions added to “cover” projects (most often Pentagon/defense related), without ANY direct (public)congressional oversight and/or accountability . These projects have been around through every presidential administration since ’47 or ’48. Elected governments come…and go.. The U.S.A.P.’s…persist.

    If the above is true (and by now you may indeed be thinking…”aww…bullshit”, WHY then are they STILL secret ?

    Kevin’s above article answers that question ; they are kept secret precisely BECAUSE they are, as per Kevin, in ESSENCE.. so SIMPLE. SO simple, in fact, that should the secrets get out, in theory ANYONE with a simple college degree in engineering/math/science….or a smart high-schooler…COULD build them.

    Al Quaeda could build them. So could Russia, North Korea and so on.

    As Kevin emphasizes, the BASIC PRINCIPLES of these systems, are conceptually, NOT hard.

    We (our institutions) just don’t have the MINDSET,just as, as per Kevin, Aristotle didn’t have the mindset to invent physics….and, GIVEN the mindset, …he(and the Greeks in general) MIGHT have !

    Hint; why was “dreamland” (“area 51″) CALLED “dreamland ?Hint # 2 by what logic (in symbols) can “A” = NOT “A”.

    We’re looking for “love”…in all the wrong places,and, like the Chinese and the Greeks, we will NEVER find the answers to these things (which are in and of themselves essentially SIMPLE in principle) without a change in MINDSET.

    Good luck !Here’s your map boys… ..go ! ;-)

    Bob Welch

  • Vasu Srinivasan


    Progress (that we currently define as) is possible due to the recursive path of discovery and invention of tools and structure.

    Sure without Tesla’s (and others) inventions, it is theoretically possible to construct a computer. But,you cannot go very far.

    Let me know what you think about this:

  • Pat McGee

    My belief: Chinese scholars mostly reasoned by analogy and linked syllogisms. Developing something as new as the scientific method doesn’t fit well with those thought patterns.

    This came from connecting two things. First, I just read Edsger Dijkstra’s 20-year-old essay, “On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computer Science.” In this, he first talks about the differences between gradual thinking (done by thinking by analogy and metaphor, aka common sense) and radical novelties. He says “by developing a keen ear for unwarranted analogies, one can detect a lot of medieval thinking today.”

    I connected this with something I picked up from a Chinese history course I took long ago: Chinese scholars and bureaucrats mostly reasoned by linking analogies. They would write a column of glyphs that linked one idea to another. They put that next to another column that started with the second idea and linked it to a third. They did this until they got the result they desired. This seemed to be a very highly trained and ingrained method.

    Connecting these: scientific thinking is a radical novelty (using Dijkstra’s term), and can’t be done using linked analogies.

    Does this make sense?

    • @ Pat McGee: I understand what you are saying, but it seems to me that the invention of gun powder, the suspension bridge, paper money, and many other examples are radical novelties — as radical as anything else we’ve seen. The Chinese reached the same novel possibilities; they perhaps did it by analogy. (Though I would like to see more evidence this is true.) I am suggesting you can reach novelty by two methods — trial and error (or analogy), or scientific experiment and communication. One is hit or miss, one more certain — but I think they get to the same discoveries. I think Dijkstra is suggestion there are ideas you cannot get to via analogy. I don’t know if I agree with that.

  • Arun R

    In retrospect, everything seems easy or possible. You are looking at what we have today and wondering why all this didn’t happen earlier. Try thinking what we might invent 50 years from now and why we don’t it already.

  • Arun R

    Too trigger-happy. Sorry for this follow-up.

    What I wanted to say was that your examples of anti-gravity machine and artificial intelligence as inventions of the future are limited by your knowledge of today the same way the ancient Greeks’ knowledge of the day prevented them from thinking of a computer. What comes after 200 years will be something that only a mind of that time will be able to imagine and not a mind of this, current, today’s time.

    • @ Arun. You say
      “What comes after 200 years will be something that only a mind of that time will be able to imagine and not a mind of this, current, today’s time.”

      Definitely. That’s why it’s so hard to predict, especially the future, as Yogi would say.

  • Ralph Weidner


    This question of why scientific methodology like that which arose in Europe beginning roughly with the Renaissance didn’t emerge earlier, either in China or ancient Greece, has been given at least a partial answer, I believe, in works such as Jean Gebser’s The Ever-present Origin.

    In that, his major, work he traced a series of structures of consciousness that human societies (and individuals) go through, beginning with what he termed the Archaic, then the Magical, then the Mythical, then the Rational, and, finally–what he saw just beginning to emerge in the 20th century, the Aperspectival. He associated with each of these structures a metaphorical dimension: 0 for Archaic, 1 for Magical, 2 for Mythical, 3 for Rational and 4 for Aperspectival. He chose Petrarch’s ascent of Mt. Ventoux (and how he experienced it according to his own writings) to dramatically illustrate the emergence of a 3-dimensional structure of consciousness from a 2-dimensional one. This, I suspect, is the crucial dividing line between cultures which, however creative, were not able to develop a scientific methodology and those more recent that have been able to. I strongly recommend reading this account for yourself, because it poignantly illustrates how a person immersed in a 2-dimensional culture can open up to a 3-dimensional awareness, and if enough others are also doing so who are more or less in communication with each other (was it Paul Tillich who remarked that the Renaissance was initiated by less than 100 persons?), they can spawn a 3-dimensional culture.

    It’s tricky. You have to have a subculture that has differentiated itself from the main culture to the point that (as Ken Wilber has described it) they are ready to pop: in this case, from 2 to 3 dimensions. My guess is that Chinese civilization was so successfully 2-dimensional and, consequently, so strong (not far enough away from equilibrium or close enough to chaos), that no subculture could possibly differentiate itself from it to any significant extent and, on the other hand, ancient Greek civilization was too close to chaos, so that it simply couldn’t provide a stable enough 2-dimensional platform for a subculture to begin building a 3rd dimension on. And without a 3-dimensional culture, i.e. Rational, i.e. Modern, you can’t hope to have anything like modern science–not its methodology, etc.