Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Archimedes Codex - Book Review

The Archimedes Codex
Reviel Netz and William Noel
Weidenfield & Nicholas 2007
Palimpsest website

This is the story of the Archimedes Palimpsest. It is the story of the discovery, the treatment and the editing and publishing of Archimedes words and ideas.

A palimpsest is a parchment manuscript with the old writing scraped off and the new writing written over the top. This was done way back in the very early times of the christian era, because parchments were expensive to make and it was easier to reuse them.

Archimedes was a Greek mathematician. Archimedes was born in the Greek city state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily around 287 BC.

The links can take you to more detailed biographies about Archimedes, but his most well known discovery was how to measure the volume of water displacement for which he shouted EUREKA when he discovered that the volume of water displaced was the same as the object displacing the water. In other words, Archimedes was taking a bath.

Firstly, and most importantly, this palimpsest prayer book originally contained at least seven treatises by Archimedes. These treatises are the Equilibrium of Planes, Spiral Lines, The Measurement of the Circle, Sphere and Cylinder, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion.

Of these treatises, the last three are of the greatest significance of our understanding of Archimedes. While the other treatises had survived through other manuscripts, there is no other surviving copy of On Floating Bodies in Greek — the language in which Archimedes wrote, and there is no version in any language of The Method of Mechanical Theorems and of this part of the Stomachion.

The Archimedes manuscript was used for the majority of the pages of the prayer book. The Archimedes manuscript was written in the second half of the tenth century, almost certainly in Constantinople.

William Noel is the Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. He was also the Director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project.

Reviel Netz is the Professor of Ancient Science at Stanford University in San Francisco, as well as a leading expert on Archimedes.

This book was very interesting to read. William writes about the discovery of the palimpsest, and all the technology used to bring out the words of Archimedes in a text that has not been read for over 1000 years.

Reviel wrote the maths chapters - there is a lot of geometry in this book, and lots of geometry diagrams - while explaning Archimedes mathematics and how he built on his earlier discoveries to make later discoveries.

As I have said earlier, I am not a numbers person. I struggled throiugh the maths chapters, knowing that my reward was to read the palimpsest chapters.

I really really enjoyed this book.

Edited To Add - The Archimedes Codex wins an award 

Edited to Add Video - BBC Documentary

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