Click here to read David Roy's review or here to read Br. Benet Exton's take on The Archimedes Codex.
Sometimes a word or phrase surfaces and you seem to see and hear it everywhere. The word “palimpsest” has been jumping out at me recently, a metaphor for various phenomena, from cultural to political. Now comes a book about a real palimpsest.
A palimpsest is, literally, a manuscript that has been scraped off (that is the meaning of the word in Greek) so that its original text can be written over with a new one. This was a common practice in the ancient world when books were inscribed in ink on heavy rolls of animal skin. Bulky storage and the need for new information were two justifications for scraping off an old, possibly duplicate, text and writing a fresh one.
The Archimedes Codex is the story of a palimpsest, but not just any palimpsest. It was ostensibly a thirteenth-century prayer book, but underneath contained a tenth-century treatise on the works of Archimedes, described by authors Netz and Noel as “the most important scientist who ever lived.” If, like me, you find that claim extraordinary, you must challenge yourself by reading the book about the book, which is also a book about the man.
The Archimedes Codex Project, as it is now known, is overseen by William Noel. The co-author of this book is Reviel Netz, Professor of Classics and Philosophy at Stanford. Together they have written a mystery story that would qualify for “Scholarly Forensics Files” if such a show existed. They describe why the unprepossessing bundle of flapping parchment
was sold to an anonymous bidder at Christie’s in 1998 for $2 million, and how it was laboriously reconstituted and read by an eager team of scientists and scholars. They have traced its history and shown the processes by which it was scraped and re-inscribed.
Archimedes, according to the authors, came closer than any ancient mathematician to developing the science of calculus, and he did so using, in all probability, little more than sticks and bare earth to expound his theories. The works of Archimedes included the discovery of specific gravity, the value of
pi, the law of the lever, and calculations for determining volume and gravity of objects. The output of this genius the authors call “the secrets of the universe.” Archimedes also invented a game - “The Stomachion,” the sort of thing a great mathematician would enjoy. Its name suggests that trying to work it will give you a bellyache. It involves fitting certain distinct geometrical shapes inside another and is described in detail in Noel and Netz’s book. Pitting a team of modern mathematicians against a computer yielded some 17,000 solutions, all of which would have been teased out by Archimedes and his friends using the most basic of tools and one highly complex instrument: the human brain.
The Codex also contains historical writings by the Greek orator Hyperides and other significant writings of antiquity. In fact, its full value as an academic resource is still being explored, nearly ten years after it was handed over to the Walters Museum in Baltimore.
The Archimedes Codex takes you step by step through the uncovering of the treasure of the palimpsest, explaining in detail how such delicate work is done and why the findings are so important not just to scholars but to ordinary folks like this humble reviewer. Before Newton and Galileo were, Archimedes was. The Archimedes Palimpsest is multi-layered, not only in the physical sense, but in the metaphorical realm, displaying to modern eyes vast regions of esoteric theory and thought long hidden under its exoteric cloak.