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The Archimedes Codex unpeeled

By Richard O'Mara


Deciphering latent script on ancient parchment makes curator Will Noel's job an Indiana Jones-style adventure

This is about an ancient book called The Archimedes Codex, bought for $2.2 million in October, 1998, at an auction in New York City by an anonymous collector who sent it to the Walters Art Museum, here to be restored, conserved, and probed for its content. It was thought to contain mathematical theses conceived by the genius of Syracuse (287-212 BC), whose name it bears, ideas not found anywhere else in the world.

The Walters faced a daunting task: what arrived was a clump of folios, crushed, torn, punctured by worm holes, in the inflexible grip of old carpenter's glue, charred at its edges, and covered with mold and water stains.

It's a miracle it still exists.

It took four years just to remove the glue, and open the book sufficiently to allow experts on ancient Greek texts to access much of its content and, with the help of ultra sophisticated imaging systems, to read it.

"It was an extraordinary adventure to read the thoughts of a guy who lived over 2,000 years ago," says Will Noel, the young curator of ancient books at the Walters and leader of the nine-year restoration effort. Mr. Noel tall, thin, buoyant, and bespectacled in a Harry Potterish way adds: "In the field of old books nothing gets more romantic than that."

The Archimedes texts were copied in the 10th century by an unknown scribe in Constantinople, then a major center of the Christian world eventually to become a center of the Islamic world. Three centuries later, another scribe washed, scraped, and otherwise tried to remove the text from the book's parchment. This person undid the book, rebound it in the opposite direction, then, on the imperfectly cleared pages, wrote his Christian prayers in Greek over the original text, which was also in Greek, and still discernible in a faint rust-colored thread running beneath. This procedure was common in medieval times: Parchment was scarce. Thus, the Archimedes Codex became a palimpsest, a twice-used book.

The findings gleaned from it have raised Archimedes's status as a thinker higher than anyone might have expected. Noel describes him as "the most important scientist who ever lived."

           Most significant among the discoveries was the knowledge that "Archimedes was the first to calculate with actual infinity in the mathematics of the West." That is to say, he was operating at an intellectual level that didn't become common in the mathematical world until the 17th century, nearly 2,000 years after his time. The Archimedean texts, Noel writes, make the mathematics of Leonardo da Vinci "look like child's play."

"The method," the thesis of premier importance, writes Noel, "survives in the Palimpsest alone ... the Palimpsest is the only physical object in the universe to bear witness to this achievement of Archimedes."

Also found in the palimpsest, and there only, was an Archimedes treatise about an ancient game involving 14 flat pieces of various shapes that fit into a square in an uncountable number of combinations. This game, the Stomachion, possibly invented by Archimedes, reveals the beginnings of the science of combinatorics, which eventually evolved into the science of probability. Noel also regards the treatise on the Stomachion as "a major discovery."

Everyone knows Archimedes was ahead of his time. How far, no one could've imagined. He devised the mathematics for locating the center of gravity of plane figures, like triangles, then in more complicated three-dimensional shapes. He discovered the law of balance: two objects are placed on a plane, one weighing 10 pounds is placed one foot to the right of the fulcrum; the other object, weighing 2 pounds, is placed five feet to the left of the fulcrum. They balance. Why? Because their distances from the fulcrum are reciprocal to the differences in their weight, 5 to 1.

He discovered the law of the lever, based on the same principle, and allegedly boasted that with a lever long enough and a place to stand he could move the earth. No one ever proved him wrong. His mathematics had practical purposes: Engineers have been using Archimedean principles since time immemorial.

Recently a new book came out, also named The Archimedes Codex. It's a history of the palimpsest and a narration of the work done on it so far, written by Noel, and Reviel Netz, of Stanford University, among the many scholars, technicians, and curators who helped rescue the codex.

The new book recounts how the old book survived wars, floods, fires, and who knows what other cataclysms its thousand years of history exposed it to. It also describes the abuse and mutilation it suffered, mostly during modern times, sometimes for benign but wrong-headed purposes, like the glue; other times for nefarious reasons, like the four forged images of ancient scribes, painted in gold over the Archimedean text within the past 70 years in an attempt to lure buyers.

The codex dodged extinction, abiding in safe collections or languishing in parlous circumstances. In fact, Noel, and film maker John Dean traced its fateful itinerary. They started where the ideas contained in it were conceived, Syracuse, Archimedes's home in Sicily. From there they went to Istanbul (Constantinople), where Archimedes's thoughts were transcribed, certainly not for the first time. They went to St. Sabas Monastery in the Judean Desert, where the codex was kept for 300 years and where 60 folios a third of its content disappeared.

To continue reading, please visit http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0415/p20s01-ussc.html?page=3

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