Click here to read Barbara Bamberger Scott's review or here to read Br. Benet Exton's take on The Archimedes Codex.
Archimedes was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, but many of his writings have long been lost to us. There have been some medieval translations of a few of his works, but nothing original. That is, until now. In 1998, a unique book went up for auction in New York: a 13th-century prayer book, handwritten by some monk back in the day. But beneath the words that this monk copied were the words of Archimedes in their original Greek. The Archimedes Codex by Reviel Netz and William Noel tells the story of the purchase of this codex, and the nine-year (and still ongoing) attempt to get as much of Archimedes’ original text from this document as possible. It’s a fascinating work, alternating between the history of the codex and revealing what the codex says, and thus it is of alternating interest to the reader.

Noel is the curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. When a wealthy (and anonymous) man bought the Codex, he ended up taking it to Walters for study. He has bankrolled the entire operation, and Noel has been the project director for this endeavor. Netz is an eminent mathematician who has taken part in this analysis and been able to bring mathematical understanding to what the text has revealed. The book is told in alternate chapters, first by Noel and then by Netz, which is a bit confusing in the first few chapters, where it’s not yet clear that they’re writing the book this way. Noel gives the history of the Codex itself and the attempts to use imaging technology and other methods to read the text underneath the prayer book text. Netz then explains some of the mathematics and why what’s been revealed is so fascinating.

It’s an interesting way to write a book, and since math is not my area of interest, I found Noel’s history a lot more interesting than Netz’s math. However, Netz’s enthusiasm about the entire project is infectious. He talks about Archimedes’ theories, how the study of mathematics changed from ancient times to more modern times, especially in light of what the Codex has revealed. One interesting thing Netz discusses is that the ancients did not use infinity as a mathematical object, but then he shows how Archimedes seems to approach the concept even though he never names it. The math is relatively easy to follow, though I did skim a large part of it. Netz provides plenty of diagrams as demonstration. Yes, mathematical writing can get dry at times, but Netz’s passion for the project shines through in his prose, making these chapters a lot easier to read.

For me, though, the main area of interest in The Archimedes Codex is Noel’s history. He does extensive investigations and theorizing into how the Codex came into being in Constantinople in the sixth century, what the monk who copied the book may have been thinking, and how the overwriting of ancient manuscripts generally occurred. Readers get an overview over how papyrus, codices and palimpsests are created. Noel discusses the history of the Codex through the 20th century, and how forged pictures were also added to it early in the century. Noel begins the book hating the monk who copied the prayer book onto the manuscript for ruining one of the most interesting mathematical texts to have been found, but he ends the book by praising him, because it’s very possible the Codex would have been lost or destroyed otherwise.

Along with the history, Noel provides a detailed account of the process put in place to reveal the hidden secrets of the Codex. This is impressive in itself, with numerous people contributing a lot of time and effort into imaging the text, coming up with ideas to make the text clearer and easier to read. We see the setbacks and disappointments, the points where Noel thought they wouldn’t be able to go forward. Noel’s passion for the Codex comes through almost as much as Netz’s does, but Noel delves more into the problems that he has had to deal with.

The contributions of both authors make The Archimedes Codex what it is. While the math part can get a little slow at times, overall the topic is a fascinating one, and both Netz and Noel are able to entice the reader to follow along with them on this unknown trail (whether mathematical or historical). Netz is almost giddy at times as things are revealed in the Codex. About a century ago, one man did translate as much as possible what was written on the Codex, but the imaging process being done currently has revealed how erroneous some of that translation is. Netz especially revels in these instances, though he does go on to thank the original translator for providing a starting point for current researchers.

This book is a definite must for any math fans out there, but it’s also good for those with a more historical bent. You can get past the math with relative ease and enjoy a historical search for the roots of book written over a thousand years ago. Whichever way you go, you can’t go wrong with The Archimedes Codex.