Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Archimedes Palimpsest

"There are things which seem like miracles to men who have not studied mathematics." - Archimedes

I'm a big fan of Archimedes. His early mathematical proofs, such as estimating the radius of the Earth and discovering the properties of density and buoyancy, were ingenious, astonishingly accurate, and insightful. And if scholarly pursuits like that don't get your blood racing, how about this: he is said to have been personally instrumental in staving off Roman attacks, setting fire to ships, building great traps for invaders, and improving catapult technology. Oh, and he demonstrated to his king the power of the pulley by lifting an entire ship, complete with crew and cargo, by pulling on a single rope, saying, "Give me a place to stand, and I can move the Earth."

So it is that the story of the Archimedes Palimpsest continues to fascinate me. It's got so many of the elements that resonate with me:
  • Archimedes, and his brilliance in Mathematics
  • communication of Mathematics
  • the loss of knowledge to the sands of time
  • the historical hostility of organized religion to truth and knowledge
  • interesting details of historic publishing, illumination, and papercraft
  • alert bibliophiles rediscovering important texts thought to be lost
  • philanthropists that do great works and remain anonymous
  • using science to reconnect with truths once known but lost
  • ...and irony.
What's the irony? That the ascetic who scraped off the words of Archimedes to pen his own spiritual treatise, despite his intent, actually served to protect them through the slow and dangerous crawl of time. Had he not done that, this original treatise would have been burned with all the other "heretical" works. Only by masquerading as religious dogma was this important tome of early mathematics saved from holy immolation. And now, despite being scraped away literally to the flesh (goatskin to be precise), the very words penned by Archimedes are being coaxed forth using cutting-edge scientific methods developed specifically for the purpose. It's amazing work, technically and historically, and it makes me glad to have studied Mathematics so that I can appreciate its value.

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