Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ghosts of books past


I love serendipity - it is perhaps one of the key pillars of optimisim. As reported in the October 6, 2007 edition of New Scientist (and available on-line to subscribers here):

From ancient Syracuse, through the medieval Holy Land to Istanbul and, finally, California, it has been a long journey for a musty old prayer book. But what is written on it makes the journey worthwhile. "This is Archimedes' brain on parchment," says William Noel, curator of ancient manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Hidden beneath the lines of ancient prayers and layers of dirt, candle wax and mould lies the oldest written account of the thoughts of the great mathematician.

This invaluable artifact is a classic example of a palimpsest: a manuscript in which the original text has been scraped off and overwritten. It was discovered more than a century ago, but only in the past eight years have scholars uncovered its secrets. Using advanced imaging techniques, they have peered behind the 13th-century prayers inscribed on its surface to reveal the text and diagrams making up seven of Archimedes' treatises. They include the only known copies of The Method of Mechanical Theorems, On Floating Bodies, and fragments of The Stomachion in their original Greek.

See also a couple of BBC articles a while ago covering the emerging discoveries - Text reveals More Ancient Secrets April 26, 2007; X-rays reveal Archimedes' Secrets August 2, 2006; and the transcript of interviews with the scientists/curators working on the text, Archimedes Secret March 14, 2002.

From the BBC interview with one of the senior scientists investigating the text, Dr. William Noel:
When the manuscript first arrived, you know, shivers ran, ran down my spine. I have never before in my life handled a book that is the only material witness to the mind of someone who died 2,200 years ago.

The transcript of the BBC interview gives a good sense of the excitement of discovery surrounding this improbable recovery. That the Greeks were so far advanced in their conceptual thinking so long ago (Archimedes 287 BC - 212 BC) is impressive enough, but that Archimedes was already headed down the path that would lead to calculus and that we should know that solely from a fragment of his writings that survived only in the form of hidden text beneath a vellum prayer-book boggles the mind.

This is such a powerful story of hope; the survival of the document at all; the precious cargo of ancient thought literally hidden within its pages; the rapidly developing non-destructive technologies that allow us to do what has never been done before in peering underneath the surface of the pages; the opportunity to know the thoughts of someone so long ago; and the sheer excitement of unexpected discovery.

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