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Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes

Discovery of the ancient document has captivated audiences; the text itself, not so much

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A Natural-light image of The Archimedes Palimpsest. Hidden beneath the prayer book is Archimedes’ Treatise “Spiral Lines.” Copyright the owner of The Archimedes Palimpsest. Licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights

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opyright the owner of The Archimedes Palimpsest

Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes

The Walters through Jan. 1, 2012

To explore the Palimpsest online, visit

William Noel, a dapper 46-year-old Cambridge Ph.D. with a slightly roguish charm, seems like a hero out of The Da Vinci Code. And that hasn’t escaped his notice. “At some point, it began to feel like a Dan Brown novel,” he says. Noel, the director of the Archimedes Palimpsest project and the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum, is describing his team’s long quest to preserve, image, and interpret lost writings of the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes to a crowd of well-heeled donors, for what must feel like the thousandth time. Like The Da Vinci Code, the story is full of high-tech gadgets and globetrotting detective/scholars, struggling to uncover ancient secrets.

During the presentation, Noel and Abigail Quandt, senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters (á la the technically brilliant and extraordinarily ethical sidekick in the novel version), occasionally point to the artifacts and images that make up the new Walters exhibition, Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes. But it is not really a visual show. After all, Noel himself calls the moldy old codex (a book made of goat-hide parchment) “ugly” and, in his 2007 book The Archimedes Codex, wrote: “You cannot even see what is interesting about the Archimedes Palimpsest.” The story must be told.

Noel himself first told it in a film back in 1999, when the Walters originally acquired the codex. Since then, the BBC, PBS, and nearly every major magazine or newspaper (including this one [“Reading Between the Lines,” Arts and Entertainment, Nov. 21, 2007]) have all related updated versions of this same story.

A scribe in Constantinople copied the texts of Archimedes onto these particular pages sometime in the tenth century. (The original Archimedes papyri are lost to history.) In 1229, another scribe washed off Archimedes’ writing—along with that of several other authors—and copied prayers over them. (The word “palimpsest” means writing over other writing.) Quandt says parchment was widely recycled because “it took a whole herd [of goats] to get enough hide to create a book.”

Rather than destroying Archimedes’ texts, this scribe inadvertently—and invisibly—preserved the only copy of this portion of his work. In 1907, a Danish scholar named John Ludwig Heiberg noticed the Archimedes text beneath the prayers. But there was much Heiberg could not decipher or even see with his magnifying glass. During World War II, several pages were defaced by forgeries of medieval miniatures of the Apostles. (Noel hypothesizes that the forgeries were a desperate attempt by someone to raise money and escape from the Nazis.)

In 1998, the codex resurfaced at a Christie’s auction, and a mysterious private individual outbid the Greek government and the Greek Orthodox Church, purchasing the Archimedes Palimpsest for just over $2 million dollars. Soon afterward, the anonymous new owner of the codex entrusted it to the Walters.

Quandt spent four years painstakingly unbinding the badly damaged book before cataloging every detail at a microscopic level, while Noel recruited a team of scientists to try a variety of different imaging techniques—ultimately bringing the team to a particle accelerator at Stanford University—in the hopes of producing digital images of the underlying Archimedes manuscript that were “good enough for scholars to read—just,” as Noel puts it. When Reviel Netz, the project’s chief classicist, was finally able to read the text, it revolutionized our concept of ancient mathematics.

I have spent the last 20 years either studying or teaching ancient Greek, and I suspect that most of us prefer Dan Brown to Archimedes. There’s a pretty good reason why. Archimedes is not Homer or Sophocles—reading him is rather like reading a contemporary physics paper. We might know that “he influenced Isaac Newton,” as one woman in a fur coat said into her cellphone in the Walters’ lobby. But how many of us read Newton anymore? Would we know if the Principia were lost?

I haven’t taken a math class since I barely passed Algebra II my second time around. I’ve never taken calculus. But because of my background I can read what Archimedes says (in the transcribed version). I just have no idea what he means. Fortunately, Netz is an able guide to the importance of the newly discovered works (most accessibly in The Archimedes Codex, co-authored with Noel).

It has long been known that Archimedes was one of the first people to apply mathematics to the physical world. You can’t perform an experiment to see whether the Earth goes around the sun, but you can use mathematical models to show that it must. This is one of the ways that Archimedes influenced Newton and the rest of modern science.

Newton and the philosopher Leibniz quarreled over which of them invented calculus first, but Archimedes laid much of the groundwork nearly two millennia earlier. It was previously thought that Archimedes—and Greek mathematicians in general—could not deal with the “actually” infinite sums necessary for true calculus. Yet some of the Palimpsest pages show that Archimedes uses an infinite number of circles to calculate the volume of a sphere, truly prefiguring modern calculus—and, ultimately, all the technology that led to our ability to decipher the text itself.

Equally astounding, Netz found a text about a puzzle called the Stomachion—or the “Belly-ache.” If Netz is right about the Stomachion, it is one of the earliest works of combinatorics, the field of science that allows different combinations and is the basis for computer science today. So this is where the Dan Brown story ties in with Archimedes in a sci-fi feedback loop: Archimedean science enables us, in a sense, to go back in time and discover that he anticipated our own technological advances even more than we previously supposed. (To complete the symmetry, the team not only translated Archimedes into English, but has also made the whole project available online, for access by anyone).

The team also found a speech by Hyperides, one of the Big Ten of ancient orators, whose work was thought never to have made the transition from papyrus to codex. The fact that it did means that people cared about this speech for a thousand years. And when they quit caring, it disappeared.

Because that’s the truth of it: The story of the Archimedes Palimpsest really isn’t like The Da Vinci Code at all (or even the far superior The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco). There are no albino assassin monks; there are no real “secrets” of Archimedes. Nothing was hidden; it was simply forgotten, erased, not uploaded to newer media.

And sadly, we don’t even read what we already have. I’ve taught Athenian oratory and so I’m excited about the Hyperides discovery, but in the last two decades, even I have only touched on a small fraction of the ancient texts that were never lost to begin with. If Hyperides had never been lost, it is likely I never would have read him anyway.

Fortunately, we don’t have to take most books to a particle accelerator in order to appreciate them (though we ought to thank the Walters for that astounding effort). But unless we actually crack them open they may as well remain lost.

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