The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist

The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist

by Reviel Netz, William Noel
     
 

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At a Christie’s auction in October 1998, a battered medieval manuscript sold for two million dollars to an anonymous bidder, who then turned it over to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for further study. The manuscript was a palimpsest-a book made from an earlier codex whose script had been scraped off and the pages used again. Behind the script of the…  See more details below

Overview


At a Christie’s auction in October 1998, a battered medieval manuscript sold for two million dollars to an anonymous bidder, who then turned it over to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for further study. The manuscript was a palimpsest-a book made from an earlier codex whose script had been scraped off and the pages used again. Behind the script of the thirteenth-century monk’s prayer book, the palimpsest revealed the faint writing of a much older, tenth-century manuscript. Part archaeological detective story, part science, and part history, The Archimedes Codex tells the extraordinary story of this lost manuscript, from its tenth-century creation in Constantinople to the auction block at Christie’s, and how a team of scholars used the latest imaging technology to reveal and decipher the original text. What they found was the earliest surviving manuscript by Archimedes (287 b.c.-212 b.c.), the greatest mathematician of antiquity-a manuscript that revealed, for the first time, the full range of his mathematical genius, which was two thousand years ahead of modern science.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Physics Today
“[Reviel Netz is] one of the most creative historians of mathematics of our time…[Will Noel] narrates with some verve his own story in learning about the palimpsest…Much of The Archimedes Codex is delightful. The story of the palimpsest is exciting, and few can explain difficult issues in Greek mathematics with the simplicity and elegance that Netz achieves…A fun read.”

Mathematics and Computer Education
“[A] crystal clear and captivating narrative. It is a book that is difficult to put down…An absolutely wonderful book…It will inspire future geometers, physicists, computer scientists, curators, and classicists.”

Science Books & Films, 8/08
“The fascinating story of how the secrets of this work have been unlocked.”

Mathematics Teacher, 11/08
“Accessible to a general audience…A valuable resource for instructors teaching a history of mathematics course.”

Toronto Globe and Mail, 1/31/09
“[An] archeological detective story…Fascinating.”

Blogcritics.org, 2/10/09
“A very interesting book, quite entertaining, sometimes funny, always engaging…A great treat for mystery lovers, classicists, mathematicians, and history buffs.”

American Author’s Association
“[A] wonderful book…This is not just a math book or a science book or a history book—it is a book of mysteries and so much more…A most fascinating tale… Entertaining, yet educational and inspiring…This book made math exciting!”

Isis, 5/6/09
“Offers fascinating insight into modern research on ancient mathematical texts.”

The history of mathematics can't be properly told without mention of Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287 B.C.-c. 212 B.C.), yet this ancient Greek very nearly disappeared from history. His known body of work was contained in three manuscripts, two of which have vanished. The third survived thanks to a 13th-century monastic scribe who copied a devotional book onto a previously used palimpsest. It was not until 1906 that a scholar discovered that an imperfectly erased mathematical text lay beneath. The Archimedes Codex tells the story of this discovery, the recovery of seven long-lost treatises, and how they have changed the history of mathematics and science.
Booklist
Like a multilayered detective story, Noel's account of Archimedes' precarious chain of transmission from original papyrus to twentieth-century America has clues, blind alleys, brushes with oblivion, and compulsive readability . . . Noel cogently describes the technical conservation and imaging difficulties the codex presented . . . Netz lucidly argues that Archimedes was on the verge of inventing calculus. A thrilling story of the ancient world lost, found, and explained.

Magill Book Reviews
Netz and Noel provide a compelling background to the provenance and recovery of Archimedes lost works, while filling in the few details known about his life and the unique position he occupies in the history of science.Compelling and accessible.
Baltimore City Paper
Details the journey of the codex, through fire, mold, theft, and forgery, and the efforts to rescue the lost work of one of the ancient world's greatest minds.
Baltimore Magazine
Should appeal to history buffs, math profs, antiquarian book lovers, and anyone who enjoys a good mystery.
Roanoke Times
A must-read for fans of the history of science.
Publishers Weekly

In 1998, the auction house Christie's sold a medieval prayer book for more than $2 million. The price owed to a startling discovery: the prayers had been written over the earliest surviving manuscript of Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), the ancient world's greatest mathematician. In a delightful and fast-paced archeological and scientific detective story, Netz, a Stanford classicist, and Noel, director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, make palpable the excitement this discovery evoked. After the auction, they were given access to study the palimpsest; after frustrating days of trying to read the writings beneath the prayer manuscript, Netz, Noel and a team of scientists and conservators turned to a variety of imaging techniques to reconstruct the hidden Archimedes manuscript, which turned out to be heretofore undiscovered works, Balancing Planes, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theoremsand the Stomachion, in which Archimedes wrote about topics ranging from gravity to infinity. The manuscript also revealed some lost speeches by Hyperides, one of the 10 canonical orators of antiquity. Netz and Noel's book chronicles the often difficult and demanding work surrounding the preservation of antiquities as they uncover one of the most exciting documents of ancient history. 16 pages of color photos. (Sept.)

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Kirkus Reviews
The unraveling of a scientific treasure hidden in the pages of a decaying palimpsest. Noel, curator of documents at the Walters Art Institute in Baltimore, obtained custody of a medieval prayer book that had been copied onto parchment that contained the erased remnants of several unique texts by the greatest of Greek scientists, Archimedes. The owner, "Mr. B," not only gave the Walters the right to display it, but the task of learning what mathematical treasures some medieval scribe had written over. To help in that task, he enlisted the aid of Netz, a leading expert on ancient mathematics. Thus began the process of recovering Archimedes' text, letter by letter, from the palimpsest. The difficulty of that task was multiplied by the fragility of the parchment, as well as clumsy efforts by previous owners to preserve it or to increase its value by inserting forged illustrations. Noel called in experts in high-tech imaging to apply sensitive but non-destructive methods. After a number of false starts, they began to uncover text that Noel could read-and he rapidly discovered that Archimedes had far more sophisticated mathematical ideas than previously thought, including a use of infinities that wouldn't reappear until the invention of calculus. Even more surprising was a previously enigmatic treatise, the Stomatichon, which turned out to deal with the science of combinations-a topic historians thought had been unexplored before the 17th century. Netz and Noel alternate chapters, each shedding light on his own area of expertise and giving a fuller picture of both ancient science and modern technology. In the end, the reader is likely to agree with Netz that Archimedes was among the greatestscientists of all time. Stimulating exploration of several areas of science.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780306815805
Publisher:
Da Capo Press
Publication date:
11/13/2007
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

What People are saying about this

Brian Clegg
An engaging account. (Brian Clegg, author of A Brief History of Infinity, in Nature)

Meet the Author


Reviel Netz, Professor of Classics and Philosophy at Stanford University, specializes in ancient science. William Noel is Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and Director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project.

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