This thrilling story about a thrilling book is one of those non-fictional books that is a joy to read. It’s packed full of fascinating information and tells a story of jaw-dropping feats of human ingenuity.
What happened to the Archimedes codex is almost incredible. In 1229, the text on the original 10th century parchments was scraped off, the scraped parchment pages were then split into two and written on before being folded and bound, to create a Christian prayer book. The resulting palimpsest (from the Greek meaning “scrape again”) has suffered the attacks of extreme old age, mould and fire and has lost a few pages.
The Archimedes Codex tells the story of how a team of conservationists, data imaging specialists, scholars in paleography and ancient mathematics toiled together to decipher the astonishing texts and diagrams buried underneath the 12th century writing. Considerable time and expense was devoted to the project, which is ongoing. An anonymous purchaser bought the palimpsest at an auction in 1998 and deposited it at the Walters Museum in Baltimore for conservation and curating. A comprehensive set of imaging data, together with a Google book version the palimpsest are available on www.archimedespalimpsest.org, ensuring that this privately owned treasure is made very widely accessible. Rumour has it that Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame is the mystery benefactor, identified throughout the book only as “Mr B”.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we can’t help but pause and wonder whether the 13th scribe who recycled the parchment had any idea of what it had originally contained. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say probably not, after all, three centuries is a long time. But what a parchment to pick. The only known copies of the “Stomachion” and “The Method of Mechanical Theorems” have been recovered from it, as has the only known copy in Greek of the famous “On Floating Bodies”. As well as seven treatises by Archimedes, the work on the palimpsest also revealed texts by Hyperides – a 4th century BCE Athenian speech writer – and a commentary on Aristotle.
Reviel Netz contends that Archimedes had pushed the notion of infinity much further than anyone had so far appreciated, before a few crucial lines were deciphered in the palimpsest. It’s an exciting thought, and a fitting tribute to the wonderful achievement of giving back to the world some deep mathematical analysis that had been lost for over two millennia.