Eureka! Mathematical text revived!

       
 

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bust of Archimedes

Archimedes

 


A blue background, with text written sideways and vertically, holds the key to the Archimedes text.
This fluorescence image shows a detail from the Archimedes text, including a diagram discovered in the last few weeks during experiments with the conservation department at the Walters Art Gallery. The diagram appears to contain a construction used in developing the mathematical arguments for Archimedes' method of mechanics. The image was not enhanced; original (horizontal) and 12th century (vertical) texts are both visible.

Photo by Johns Hopkins University, courtesy of the owner of the Archimedes palimpsest. (A palimpsest is writing material that's been erased and reused.)

 

24 JULY 2000 Archimedes: To math-phobes, he's the character who muttered "Eureka!" after divining a way to distinguish gold from dross without wrecking the metal.

Archimedes also invented the Archimedes screw, an ingenious method of pumping water and a way to calculate the volume of a sphere and the area under a parabola.

The Eureka-sayer, in fact, was the major mathematical mind of the ancient world. Richard Askey, a professor of mathematics at University of Wisconsin-Madison, ranks him with the three giants of mathematics -- in the lofty company of Isaac Newton and Carl Friedrich Gauss.

A dead letter
Too bad none of his scribbling survives. Or virtually none. Now, courtesy of a 10-century saga of recycling, disappearing art, high-stakes auctioning, and scientific reconstruction, a 170-page manuscript containing what seem to be copies Archimedes' work is coming to light.

Most of the parties involved refused to discuss the matter with us, saying that the news had been released "prematurely" by someone in Rochester, where part of the reconstruction is being done. But here's what we've pieced together.

 

timeline


287-212 BC.

Archimedes lives in Greece, helping protect his king from a fraudulent jeweler. He invents a pump, a method for determining density, and methods for various geometric calculations.
1000 AD.
A scribe, perhaps in Constantinople (now called Istanbul) copies some of Archimedes' formulas and writings on vellum, or parchment.
1200

A Greek Orthodox monk scrapes the parchment, copies prayers onto it, rotates the pages 90 degrees, and rebinds them into a 170-page prayer book.

1907

A scholar examining manuscripts at the Convent of the Holy Sepulchre in Istanbul notices some mathematical diagrams and scribbling, and attributes them to Archimedes.

 

1920s

The book disappears from the convent.
1930s

A French family acquires the book.

 

1998

The family sells the book at auction for $2-million. The new owner contacts the Walters Art Gallery, a municipal institution in Baltimore, for help in restoration.


How-to?

The book was moldy and decrepit, says Kirsten Lavin, public relations coordinator at Walters, so the institution, which has restored other ancient books, was a logical place to seek help.

Walters, in turn, asked the Rochester Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University to each restore a few pages. The RIT folks are concentrating on digital image processing, while the Hopkins group is using light to extract information.

a close-up view of the Archimedes text above

The technique is to expose the text to long-wavelength ultraviolet light. That boosts electrons in atoms in the parchment into higher orbits. When the electrons fall back to their original orbits, photons -- particles of light -- are emitted. The photons are filtered, allowing only a narrow range of blue light to reach a digital sensor. You see the results of this work at the top of the page.

After the two competing teams produce their results, the Walker will decide which one -- or perhaps both -- will get to decode the rest of the book. And if the material indeed turns out to be the work of the master, it could have significance for math. Archimedes was, after all, so brilliant that it took almost 2,000 years for other mathematicians to catch up with him. This early recycling project may have desecrated other kinds of works -- perhaps even fascinating stuff like laundry lists, ancient tax rolls, or other ancient writing.

-- David Tenenbaum

     

 

     

Bibliography
Scientists Find Archimedes' Words, Associated Press, 11 July 2000.

       
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