Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Title: The Archimedes Codex: How A Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist
Authors: Reviel Netz and William Noel

Apparently there's very few records of Archimedes' work; none that survive today were written in his hand. His scrolls were transferred to parchment around the end of the first millenium, and some of those were subsequently scraped down and reused, as scribes in those days often did.

The one in question here turned into a prayer book in the 1200's. That prayer book survived, though it was neglected, and was put up for auction in the late 1990's, purchased by an anonymous but very wealthy man. At that point, it was in terrible shape, ravaged by mold, bookworms, missing pages, general deterioration, and a few forged drawings on top of the prayers on top of the Archimedes.

Noel is the conservator of a museum in Baltimore that ended up leading the attempts to restore and decipher the book, while Netz is a mathematician/historian/Archimedes scholar. They wrote the book together, alternating chapters, describing both the work taking place in modern day and also discussing Archimedes' theorems, proofs, and discoveries (which are rather incredible).

At first, the fact that neither Netz nor Noel identify themselves when they start their chapters is a bit confusing, but then you realize that the chapters themselves are very, very focused - all math, or all conservation/restoration. They each manage to simplify their topics such that anyone can follow along, though the geometric proofs were so simplified and glossed over that I found them more confusing than if they'd actually gone step by step.

The conservation process sounds incredible - they managed to use all sorts of new technologies to decipher the ancient text, resulting in new discoveries both in the science of reading ancient texts and in the knowledge of Archimedes' genius.

Also fascinating was how many of the people involved in the process were volunteers. Noel got the press to do stories on the book, and all sorts of people volunteered time and knowledge. He posed issues to scientists, and for the promise of a negligible prize and the satisfaction of solving a major problem they did so. There may be a documentary out there about this saga; I haven't put any effort into tracking it down. Either way, you can get more information at www.archimedespalimpsest.org.

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posted by ket at 3:07 PM


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