Tag Archives: Archimedes palimpsest

The Joy of Circles

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If ever there was a book that perfectly summed up the case for why I love books, [The Archimedes Codex] How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist by Reviel Netz and William Noel would be exhibit A. The reasons why, as points covered in this wonderfully entertaining read for bibliophiles and lovers of multidisciplinary fields in action, include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. The book as a material object
  2. The book as a historical record
  3. The book as a conveyor of information
  4. The book as a technology
  5. The book as an advancer of technology

All this and more comes together in one. Noel and Netz take turns in the telling according to their areas of expertise. Noel, as Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Museum in Baltimore was given the opportunity by the anonymous owner of the codex to steward the study of this famous palimpsest. Netz’s specialty is in ancient science, and so between the two we get a very through understanding and deconstruction (literally) of book provenance, structure (with forays into paper, ink, and binding), forgeries, conservation, and cutting-edge methods of reading the unreadable, as well as a brief history of Archimedes, his impact on the whole history of math and science, the differences between how math was approached in ancient Greece compared to our own age, and quite a bit of the actual math involved. For me, it was a thrilling read. History, science, math, literature, and book studies all in a single object—the most ubiquitous and under-rated technological wonder of them all: a humble book.

A palimpsest, for those not familiar with the term, is a document (in this case a codex, which is a book in our familiar form as opposed to a book in scroll form, say) which has been erased (in this case, scraped away off the parchment, as opposed to erased off of paper) and written over again. What looked like a simple prayer book, was actually written over several books of Archimedes. Of those Method survives in the palimpsest alone. No where else! What may seem to be an act of unforgivable folly—using Archimedes text as scrap paper! is the very thing that allowed its improbable survival. And so we are grateful.

The process of reading the Archimedes text underneath the prayer book (and to add extra fun to the challenge, a modern-day forgery of illuminated illustrations), is difficult difficult lemon difficult* not to mention painstaking. I will admit that I have at least a passing interest in rare books and book conservation, so the technical aspects of the work of uncovering the text was fascinating to read. But, I would think it interesting to any reader if for no other reason than to gain a better understanding and measure of respect for a book’s structure and material evolution (or de-evolution as is sometimes the case—I’m looking at you, acidic paper!)

But, fascinating too were the passages dedicated to Archimedes, his way of thinking, and enormous impact on science, in fact, some of the most sophisticated technology employed in the effort to read his text would not have been possible without his proofs and methods.

The revelations of Archimedes true intent in regard to the Stomachion, for instance, read like a mystery novel. The Archimedes Palimpsest, incredibly, has pushed back the historic timeline of when combinatorics were first thought to be robustly considered and developed. Combinatorics, I might add, had no practical use to Archimedes, and yet, without that particular field of mathematics, computers would not be possible and you would be sadly deprived of learning about this book from me. Full circle. Is there anything more satisfying?

*to randomly quote, as I am wont to do, the very funny film In the Loop

**Illustration from p 45 of [The Archimedes Codex] How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist

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