Unveiling the work of Archimedes

From Washington, D.C., at the Joint Mathematics Meetings

An ancient manuscript long hidden from public view may provide significant, new insights into the way Archimedes did his mathematical work more than 2,000 years ago. The manuscript, known as the Archimedes Palimpsest, is the only source of Archimedes’ treatise “On the Method of Mechanical Theorems.” As the oldest surviving Archimedes manuscript, it’s the closest we can get to the mathematician himself, says science historian Reviel Netz of Stanford University, who has been studying the relic.

Dating from the 10th century A.D., the Archimedes text survives as writing on parchment that 2 centuries later was cut apart, roughly scraped, and overwritten with a description of a church ritual. The document was first rediscovered in Constantinople in 1906 by the Danish scholar J.L. Heiberg. Aided only by a magnifying glass, however, he could not read every word of the text. The manuscript vanished from view in the 1920s before resurfacing in France in 1998. It was auctioned off last year for a $2 million bid by an anonymous buyer.

The use of ultraviolet photography and digital imaging—technologies unavailable to Heiberg—now makes it possible to read beneath the lines about the church ritual and see important details of Archimedes’ text and diagrams. The geometric diagrams, for example, suggest that Greek mathematicians tended to emphasize qualitative relationships over quantitative accuracy, Netz notes. Although no one expects any major mathematical discoveries, scholars may very well obtain a better understanding of Archimedes’ original mode of thinking.

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