Books by Noel, William

Netz, Reviel and William Noel. The Archimedes Codex. New York: Da Capo Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-306-81580-5.
Sometimes it is easy to forget just how scanty is the material from which we know the origins of Western civilisation. Archimedes was one of the singular intellects of antiquity, with contributions to mathematics, science, and engineering which foreshadowed achievements not surpassed until the Enlightenment. And yet all we know of the work of Archimedes in the original Greek (as opposed to translations into Arabic and Latin, which may have lost information due to translators' lack of comprehension of Archimedes's complex arguments) can be traced to three manuscripts: one which disappeared in 1311, another which vanished in the 1550s, and a third: the Archimedes Palimpsest, which surfaced in Constantinople at the start of the 20th century, and was purchased at an auction for more than USD 2 million by an anonymous buyer who deposited it for conservation and research with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. (Note that none of these manuscripts was the original work of Archimedes: all were copies made by scribes, probably around the tenth century. But despite being copies, their being in the original Greek means they are far more likely to preserve the sense of the original text of Archimedes, even if the scribe did not understand what he was copying.)

History has not been kind to this work of Archimedes. Only two centuries after the copy of his work was made, the parchment on which it was written was scrubbed of its original content and re-written with the text of a Christian prayer book, which to the unaided eye appears to completely obscure the Archimedes text in much of the work. To compound the insult, sometime in the 20th century four full-page religious images in Byzantine style were forged over pages of the book, apparently in an attempt to increase its market value. This, then, was a bogus illustration painted on top of the prayer book text, which was written on top of the precious words of Archimedes. In addition to these depredations of mankind, many pages had been attacked by mold, and an ill-advised attempt to conserve the text, apparently in the 1960s, had gummed up the binding, including the gutter of the page where Archimedes's text was less obscured, with an intractable rubbery glue.

But from what could be read, even in fragments, it was clear that the text, if it could be extracted, would be of great significance. Two works, “The Method” and “Stomachion”, have their only known copies in this text, and the only known Greek text of “On Floating Bodies” appears here as well. Fortunately, the attempt to extract the Archimedes text was made in the age of hyperspectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence, and other nondestructive technologies, not with the crude and often disastrous chemical potions applied to attempt to recover such texts a century before.

This book, with alternating chapters written by the curator of manuscripts at the Walters and a Stanford professor of Classics and Archimedes scholar, tells the story of the origin of the manuscript, how it came to be what it is and where it resides today, and the painstaking efforts at conservation and technological wizardry (including time on the synchrotron light source beamline at SLAC) which allowed teasing the work of Archimedes from the obscuration of centuries.

What has been found so far has elevated the reputation of Archimedes even above the exalted position he already occupied in the pantheon of science. Analysis of “The Method” shows that Archimedes anticipated the use of infinitesimals and hence the calculus in his proof of the volume of curved solids. The “Stomachion”, originally thought to be a puzzle devoid of serious mathematical interest, turns out to be the first and only known venture of Greek mathematics into the realm of combinatorics.

If you're interested in rare books, the origins of mathematical thought, applications of imaging technology to historical documents, and the perilous path the words of the ancients traverse to reach us across the ages, there is much to fascinate in this account. Special thanks to frequent recommender of books Joe Marasco, who not only brought this book to my attention but mailed me a copy! Joe played a role in the discovery of the importance of the “Stomachion”, which is chronicled in the chapter “Archimedes at Play”.

August 2008 Permalink