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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sleuthing through an ancient text

In some small way I suppose I fancy myself a bit of a detective, only I use my sleuthing in uncovering what's not been written about others. This story in today's Christian Science Monitor about the restoration of the Archimedes Codex is exactly the kind of work I'd like to do were I not a writer.

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."

Will Noel, one of the curators at the Walters Museum in Baltimore who worked on the restoration, admitted he originally harbored a "simmering animosity" toward the person who defaced Archimedes original work. But as he later came to realize, this person protected the valuable information contained so that it would remain, albeit buried, some 2,000 years later.

Word of the day
equivocal: of uncertain nature or classification

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