The Archimedes Palimpsest

Archimedes 287-211 BCI just got finished watching an incredible episode of NOVA. Infinite Secrets tracks the discovery, loss and recovery of a lost volume of mathematical methods by the great thinker Archimedes. Originally penned two centuries before Christ, the work was lost to common memory during the Dark Ages. A single copy was made into a book around 1000 AD by a monk in Constantinople. Unfortunately mathematics was not of interest to the monks and a couple hundred years later the book was cut up, washed and written over by another monk in need of parchment. The resulting palimpsest was used as a prayer book for centuries and the original text forgotten.

The palimpsest had an exciting history. In the first decade of the 20th century a Danish philogist discovered the prayer book and recognized its importance. The monastery refused to let him take the book, but he did photograph every page and painstakingly decipher the faint original Archimedian text. In the chaos of the First World War the palimpsest was lost and believed destroyed. But in fact it was in the possession of a French family for most of the century, who put it up for auction in 1998. The winner bidder loaned the book to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where a team of restorers and scholars are imaging and translating the Archimedes text at last.

Approximating piThe translated text shows that Archimedes was tantalizingly close to developing the Calculus, something that took another 19 centuries to accomplish. It was an astonishing leap of intellect and a poignant reminder of what was lost by the rise of Christianity and the concomitant turning away from science and mathematics during the Dark Ages. I remember watching Cosmos many years ago, and Carl Sagan uttered a throwaway line that stuck with me. It was during his discussion on the Library of Alexandria, and how most of the intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks was lost in the conflagration that consumed the Library. Sagan wondered what might have happened if the world hadn’t lost the knowledge of ancient Greece and sunk into the Dark Ages. Would we be roaming amongst the stars by now? If Archimedes was doing the Calculus, which stands at the root of modern science and engineering, in 214 BC, it makes me shudder to think what else has been lost in the sands of time.