Sunday, June 24, 2007

Classical Scholarship lives: The Story of the Archimedes Manuscript

When the Romans advanced to Sicily in the Second Punic War and finally captured the proud city of Syracuse, one of their soldiers met an old man who, surrounded by the din of battle, was calmly drawing geometric figures in the sand. "Do not disturb my circles," the eccentric old man called out. The legionnaire killed him with his sword.

That, at least, is the legend.

The truth is a different story altogether. Placed in charge of King Hieron II's artillery equipment, Archimedes later played an important military role during the siege of Syracuse. He invented powerful catapults to defend his homeland, using cranes to hurl heavy boulders from the walls of the fortress at enemy ships. Mirrors were also used, it is said, to direct burning rays of sunlight at the Roman armada, setting the ships on fire. The Sicilians resisted the onslaught of the ambitious Roman republic for more than two years.

In short, had the legionnaire really speared the eccentric old man with his sword, he would have done the Romans a great service. In addition to being an oddball scholar, Archimedes was a skilled inventor of weapons.

...The fuss revolves around a manuscript that caused an uproar once before, in October 1998, when a fragile, handwritten manuscript with mold spots and blackened edges was offered for sale in an auction at Christie's in New York. After a contentious bidding war, the auctioneer's hammer fell at a price of $2.2 million.
Photos from SpiegelOnline.
An anonymous "billionaire from the computer industry" had apparently purchased the rare work. But who was it? Neither the auction house nor the new owner was willing to answer that question. Insiders are now certain that it was Jeffrey Bezos, the founder and CEO of online book retailer Amazon...

...The wealthy US buyer was accommodating enough to lend the manuscript to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for analysis.

...Part of the problem lies in the fact that the parchment is a palimpsest (from the Greek: scrape clean again). The texts, formulas and drawings by Archimedes, executed in brown ink, were erased in the Middle Ages and overwritten with a religious text. Specialists at the museum irradiated the pages, made of goat leather, with UV light.

Then they were bombarded with X-rays in the particle accelerator at Stanford University to bring out the traces of iron in the Byzantine ink. NASA experts were also involved in analyzing the an effort to determine what was under the text and iconography that was applied overtop of the writings of Achimedes...

...The US researchers certainly discovered a few exciting details. For example, they managed to correctly interpret the "Stomachion," a document that until now existed only in the form of a fragment in Arabic. The title of this treatise on numbers is the name of a children's game Archimedes invented, but it can also signify the beginning of combinatorics.

The researchers were also able to determine the source of the handwriting. A scribe at the court of the emperor of Byzantium apparently wrote the parchment manuscript around 950 A.D. He used various older mathematics books by Archimedes and selected seven important treatises, which he copied.

But science eventually took a turn for the worse in the Byzantine Empire. In 1229, a monk picked up the primer on mathematics, not to study it but to recycle its valuable pages made of animal hide. Using a sponge and lemon juice, he rubbed off the ink. Then he cut the cleaned pages in half, rotated them by 90 degrees and bound them together to make a new book, which he proceeded to fill with prayers and liturgies.

This from SpeigelOnline:International. Photos owned by the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest.

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