Even though I have no scientific qualifications, one of my favourite monthly magazines is the Irish published ‘Science Spin’ which features articles on science, nature and discovery, most in relation to this country. The articles are always written so as to appeal to the lay-person and this month’s edition has a fascinating story by Marie-Catherine Mousseau about what is being described as ‘the world’s first computer’.

The story began in 1900, not far from the Greek island of Crete. Sponge divers were returning to port when a storm blew up and forced them to take shelter on a small piece of land in front of the island of Kythera also known as Antikythera.

When the weather calmed they went for another dive and discovered the wreck of a Roman trading ship. They found beautiful, bronze statues and other familiar items but they also found what appeared to be a lump of bronze in a container the size of a shoe-box. It lay in storage in Athens for many years until somebody decided to investigate it further and, to everybody’s amazement, the ‘lump of bronze’ turned out to be a mechanical instrument containing at least thirty gears.

It emerged that the mechanism was designed to display astronomical positions. When a date was entered via a crank, the mechanism calculated the position of the Sun, Moon, and possibly other astronomical information such as the location of other planets. It is even thought to have been able to predict eclipses. The item was also covered with Greek inscriptions of astronomical significance, which, according to experts, were actual instructions as to its use. In other words, this astronomical calculator was created some thousand of years before any kind of technological artifacts of similar complexity were known to exist.

It was certainly extraordinary but historians pointed out that Cicero had recorded in three of his books that he had seen or heard of a mechanism for displaying the position of the Sun, the Moon and, sometimes, the planets in the sky. Two of the devices that Cicero described were built by Archimedes and brought to Rome after his death at the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC. If Cicero’s account is correct, then similar technology had existed as early as the 3rd century BC.

Among the inscriptions identified was the word ‘Olympia’ together with a dial divided into four parts demonstrating a four-year cycle. This suggested to scientists that the astronomical device was probably also used to calculate the timing of the Ancient Olympic Games.

Not too long ago, Professor Mike Edmunds, Cardiff University, School of Physics and Astronomy, addressed the ‘Frontiers of Physics Teachers Conference’, in UCD and described the ancient artifact as ‘a phenomenal, staggering mechanical design, fascinating in its complexity’. The full, fascinating story, well worth reading if you are interested in this kind of thing, is in the current, July, issue of ‘Science Spin’.

Freney the Robber

If you are looking for an interesting read this summer you should consider picking up a copy of ‘Freney the Robber’ by Michael Holden of Thomastown. Michael is well known throughout South Kilkenny and Waterford and received his secondary education at De La Salle College in the city. Published by Mercier Press, it is available at The Book Centre in Waterford and in most other good stores.

James Freney was an 18th century highwayman who operated mostly, but not always, in Kilkenny, and he earned the reputation among the ordinary people as being ‘the noblest highwayman in Ireland’. Also known as ‘Captain’ Freney, dozens of enthralling stories about his deeds entered local folklore and, for the first time, Michael Holden has collected and presented them in one complete book form.

Regarded as a local hero and a lovable rogue, it was said he ‘knew no fear and served no god’ but the author provides an insight into the real Freney and says his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ qualities raised questions about his character and his so-called bravery. Yet, Michael Holden comes to the conclusion that Freney’s amazing exploits would have done justice to many of our national heroes and the courage and ingenuity he showed when facing almost certain death, reveals a man of exceptional abilities.

What I didn’t know until I read Michael’s book was that one of the reasons James Freney took to outlawing was that he believed he had been treated very badly by the powers that were in Waterford when he tried to make a living operating a pub in the city!

Paying for pothole damage

I am not aware of the figures, if any, for Waterford city and county councils but information released by Galway County Council last week to The Connacht Tribune newspaper makes very interesting reading. Apparently, the Galway local authority is facing record pay-outs to motorists whose cars have been damaged by potholes.

This year, the County Council has already forked out €23,000 to angry motorists mainly in compensation for tyres damaged in potholes. Last year, it paid out over €22,000 and the year before that the bill came to €43,000. Because the county’s road network of almost 4,000 miles is expected to deteriorate further, it is feared that, by year’s end, a record figure in pothole compensation will be reached.

The county’s roads budget has been slashed by almost €10m and the senior engineer, Evan Molloy, agreed that many rural roads were in poor shape following the bad weather of last winter. Mr Molloy also admitted that the reduction in the budget for maintenance and improvements would have a major effect on the quality of the roads now and into the future.

‘Couldn’t give a hoot’ drivers

If the roads are bad in this country, they are matched by some of our drivers who, according to a Judge last week, don’t give ‘two hoots’ about other road users.

A court in County Mayo heard about a woman who caused havoc in the town of Castlebar when she parked her car in the middle of a busy street and disappeared! She later explained that she had left her car to nip quickly into the bank but there was a long queue before her so she had to wait about fifteen minutes or so before she was served. Oh well, that’s alright so. That explains everything!

Not a happy marriage

A golfer at the Faithlegg Club was standing over his tee shot for what seemed like an eternity. He looked up and looked down measuring the distance and trying to determine the wind direction and speed. He was driving his playing partner mad and, eventually, his friend said to him: “For God’s sake, why are you taking so long, why don’t you just hit the bloody ball.”

“Listen”, said his friend, “my wife is up there watching me from outside the clubhouse so I want to make this a perfect shot.” “For heaven’s sake”, replied his pal in exasperation, “you’re totally wasting your time because you haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of hitting her from here.”

Later the two were talking in the bar and one asked the other why he hated his wife so much. “I’m at my wits end”, said his friend, “she gives me an awful time at home. Every single night she comes at me on her hands and knees.”

“Why does she do that”, asked his surprised friend. “Well”, came the reply, “she keeps shouting at me to come out from under the bed and fight like a man.”