If you believe author Erich von Däniken, we owe everything our civilisation has to aliens. Arriving on Earth in our prehistory, they bred and taught us how to read and write, and even helped us to build the world’s ancient wonders, from the Pyramids of Giza to the scowling heads of Easter Island.
One of von Däniken’s major pieces of evidence for his theory, originally presented in his bestselling book Chariots Of The Gods, was the a remarkable clockwork device that was dredged up just off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900. Created some 2000 years ago, this anomalous, ancient machine – whose intricate mesh of cogs predated the earliest clocks by centuries – was von Däniken’s proof that aliens were abroad in the ancient world. After all, how could mankind create such a remarkable specimen without the aid of extra terrestrials?
As presenter Michael Mosley demonstrates in the new BBC series The Story Of Science, there are more weird stories and curious characters in the lineage of astronomy than were dreamt of in von Däniken’s philosophy. While remarkable in its construction, the Antikythera mechanism was based on a flawed model of the universe, which suggested that the planets orbited the Earth. If aliens were lurking among the Ionic columns of the ancient world, they would surely have corrected the Greeks’ errant thinking.
The Story Of Science lacks the smouldering man candy that formed the centre of the BBC’s recent Wonders Of The Solar System, and it’s unfortunate for Michael Mosley that his show follows so closely on the heels of such an excellent series. But it holds up well nevertheless, with compelling writing and the kind of continent-spanning reportage that marks out the channel’s more expensive edutainment output.
Cramming approximately 2,000 years’ worth of astronomical history into an hour while preventing the whole enterprise from falling utterly flat couldn’t have been a simple task, but Mosley cleverly keeps the human element at the forefront of his story, weaving an entertaining yarn of Bohemian cosmologists with metal noses, psychic dwarves, Polish clerics with crazy cosmological theories, and quixotic, observatory-building men in jodhpurs.
In Mosley’s hands, the legendary Galileo becomes a bearded chancer who arrived in Venice as a struggling maths teacher on the brink of debt, and became an overnight success thanks to his refinement of the Dutch spyglass. By an extraordinary twist of fate, Venice happened to be home to the finest glassmakers in the world, whose output Galileo fashioned into remarkably precise lenses.
For the first time, Galileo could observe in detail the phases of the moon and, in the process, produced some of the most exquisitely detailed maps of the lunar surface of the age.
Unfortunately for Galileo, he became the target of a resurgent Catholic church. His second book, the Dialogo, which argued that the Sun was at the centre of our solar system, so enraged the Pope that Galileo was dragged to Rome, subjected to the dreaded Inquisition, and sentenced to life in prison.
Nevertheless, Galileo’s message wriggled free from the Church’s grip, and within decades the theories outlined in the Dialogo were recognised as scientific truth.
From the ancient Greek myths of the Solar System, via the revolutionary theories of Isaac Newton, to the work of Edwin Hubble, Mosley presents the lineage of astronomy which, while lacking the epic sweep of Wonders, weaves an enthralling spell of its own.
The story of astronomy is one of slowly evolving ideas rather than overnight revolutions, and, as Mosley explains, our understanding of the universe isn’t thanks to one specific historical figure, and certainly isn’t due to the intervention of aliens from a distant galaxy.
The Story Of Science airs on BBC2 Tuesdays at 9pm and BBC HD at 10:30pm.