The Archimedes Codex
Reviel Netz and William Noel
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Buy *The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist* by Reviel Netz and William Noel online

The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist
Reviel Netz and William Noel
Da Capo Press
313 pages
November 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read Barbara Bamberger Scott's review or here to read David Roy's take on The Archimedes Codex.

The Archimedes Codex is a very old book from around 1000 A.D. that is a copy of some of the works by the ancient Greek scientist and mathematician Archimedes, who lived around 287 to 212 B.C in Syracuse, Italy. Syracuse was a Greek city state on the present-day Italian island of Sicily, and Archimedes was a prominent citizen of that city, well-known among the intellectuals of his time in the Mediterranean Sea area. Syracuse allied with Carthage against Rome; when Carthage was defeated in the Second Punic Wars, Rome sent its army to capture Syracuse. Archimedes used his mathematical abilities to create defenses and war machines for his city. Syracuse was betrayed, however - the Romans captured the city, and Archimedes died.

Archimedesí name is well-known among mathematicians and other scientists. He wrote several treatises: On the Method of Mechanical Theorems, On Floating Bodies, On the Measurement of the Circle, On the Sphere and the Cylinder, On Spiral Lines, and On the Equilibrium of Planes. His originals have been lost, but luckily some scribes made copies. Around 1000 A.D. a scribe in Constantinople wrote a copy of Archimedes treatises. A codex is a book made from parchments, pages made from animal hides that have been scraped and treated to make a surface to write on. Parchments can last longer than papyrus or paper. Around 1200, a Christian monk used this codex of Archimedesí treatises and added some other parchments to it to create a prayer book. This book is called a palimpsest, which means that the original writing and drawings have been scraped off and a new text written on the parchments. At first this sounds like a horrible thing to have happen to the collection of this important ancient Greek scientistís writings (which it was), but it also saved the treatises for the future.

There were two other known codices of Archimedes treatises, known as Codex A and Codex B, but they are now lost. Only this one, Codex C, is known to have survived. It ended up in a monastery as a prayer book. In 1906, Johan Ludvig Heiberg found this codex in Istanbul and transcribed and photographed it as best as he could. After this, it is believed that the codex was stolen and someone tried to sell it. To make it more appealing, this person painted pictures of the Evangelists, the writers of the Gospels. A Frenchman bought it, and it stayed in his familyís Paris home until 1998, when it was auctioned at Christieís for $2 million.

The new owner lent it to the Walter Art Museum in Baltimore to have it translated, cleaned, imaged, and to have this information made available to scholars. This part of the Codexís history is what this book is mainly about. William Noel is the curator of manuscripts at the Museum and was given charge of the project. Co-author Reviel Netz is a professor of classics and philosophy at Stanford University, and in alternating chapters they describe the events from 1998 to 2006 of the things done to make the Archimedes treatises readable without destroying the text of the prayer book, using state-of-the-art or newly created custom imaging technology. The owner of the book wanted this to be done quickly, so he at times held competitions to get better and quicker results. There were several discoveries which they made using this technology.

Most readers will not understand the many mathematical terms and diagrams involved in this book, including this reviewer. I did, however, enjoy the story of the history of the book, the preservation of the book, and the quest to find the best technology to aid in reading the Archimedes text. Itís like a mystery adventure story, but it for real. The reader will feel the excitement of the authors and their associates in making new discoveries.

This book is highly recommended to those interested in Archimedes, old books, archaeology, ancient Greek science, geometry, and mathematics.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Br. Benet Exton, O.S.B., 2007

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