Tag Archives: Archimedes

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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Argue as You Please

No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required.
-Plutarch (on Archimedes) Everybody’s Plutarch (322)

IMG_0831I find myself talking to Plutarch. I have a few questions for the man. I know he  worked very hard to make an academic study of the “nobel lives” of various Greek and Roman men. That would be question number one. Plutarch, come on, it wouldn’t have killed you to mention a woman or two. And no, I won’t give you credit for your one page on Aspasia (loved by the great and noble Pericles). We already heard tell from my drinking buddy Herodotus about her fabulousness. Well, alright, I’ll give maybe a partial credit, as it’s a sunny day, the sky is brilliant blue, and why not?  Aspasia’s ‘ill repute’ as a ‘Madame,’ is mentioned in a single sentence.  Her charm and status as a woman who taught great men the art of speaking, including “Socrates himself [who] would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintances with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her” (180) in two more. But Plutarch flies through Pericles’ first marriage, (which ends by mutual consent) with such speed that we’ve hardly digested this rather reasonable and progressive version of divorce by irreconcilable indifference when he is finishing off the paragraph with a hilariously staid description of the passion between Pericles and Aspasia.

And he loved her with wonderful affection; every day, both as he went out and as he came in from the market-place, he saluted and kissed her. (180)

Well, it’s not much, but it’s all he gives, so there you have it-  hello and goodbye with a kiss. What are we to think by this account? Perhaps it was so very common for women of this day to be regarded with such respect for their intellect and allure that a longer mention would have seemed unseemly. But somehow, I doubt it.

The chapter on Marcellus seemed to me to be as much about Archimedes as it was about Marcellus. And that leads me to my second question. I find a blatant bias towards the Greeks in these writings. If anyone out there is reading Plutarch’s Lives then chances are good that you, like I, are reading an abridged version. But the original format was to take a Greek life and then a Roman life and compare the two. Most of what I have read thus far has been about the martial prowess of the Romans compared to the martial (of course- that’s pretty much how the “Nobles” get the title) but also, mental and moral acumen of the Greeks. In fact Plutarch openly questions Marcus Cato’s “nobel-ness.” After  spending far more time discussing Cato’s penny-pinching austerity mode of living than Aspasia’s “make love not war” modus operandi, he unusually inserts his own opinion into the matter by questioning Cato’s treatment, for one, of aging servants that have out-lived their usefulness and are cast out into the world in order to preserve Cato’s own bottom line and warped sense of economy.

Whether these acts are to be ascribed to the greatness or pettiness of spirit, let every one argue as they please (357).

And that is the fun of Plutarch. His histories are slightly more personalized and it is really his personality that keeps me interested in all the rest. And I love a good argument, as long as (and perhaps if Plutarch had told us more I could know if Aspasia would agree with me) no one gets hurt.

Everybody’s Plutarch arranged and edited by Raymond T. Bond, Drydan’s translation.

Plutarch part one: Lives: Noble or Not
Plutarch part three: An Accord Sown