Accessibility links

World: New Technology Helping To Decipher Long-Lost Notes Of Father Of Technology -- Archimedes

  • Don Hill

A physicist at Stanford University in the United States is scanning a 1,000-year-old document made of parchment on which were recorded some of the writings of Archimedes -- some say the greatest mathematician of all time. It is a remarkable new direction for the physicist's pioneering work in advanced applications of X-rays. The inscriptions have been scratched out and overwritten in the centuries since they were set to parchment. But because they were penned in an iron-based ink, X-rays in the Stanford lab have made readable the only known early Greek recordings of Archimedean thought.

Prague, 19 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- About a thousand years ago, an unknown scholar transcribed some of the writings of Archimedes onto durable parchment. The material he transcribed already was 1,300 years old at the time.

That lonely labor might have created a great gift for modern scholars who followed. But it ignored the depths of intellectual vandalism that people are capable of. In the Western calendar's 12th century, a monk sought some parchment from which to create a prayer book. He scraped out the Archimedes transcriptions and wrote his prayers and worship-service texts -- a sort of priest's manual -- on the second-hand parchment.

That was common practice in those days. A parchment or vellum document so re-used is called a palimpsest.

The book changed hands and form over the years. Forgers sought to increase its value by adding decorations and gold to the book. And in 1998, an auction house sold it to a private investor for $2 million. That sale brought it to the attention of a stunningly alert and resourceful museum curator named William Noel, assistant curator of the Walters Art Museum in the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore.
"It is amazing that one of the greatest minds of all times, who is pretty much the father of everything we are doing, that we can use this technology to try to understand how he was thinking."

Noel found the anonymous collector and persuaded him to lend the document to the Walters for study. Noel figured that the barely discernible Archimedes notes would be of immense interest to mathematicians, historians, and others.

"You know, Archimedes is so important in the history of science that mathematicians are interested and anyone who has a broad cultural interest in the history of Western civilization. Archimedes is one of those people who is such a foundational figure for modern culture. He's just one of the solid bedrocks upon which we as human beings have managed to build our culture and society today. And -- in Archimedes' case -- our technology," Noel said.

Noel had three objectives. One was to gain access to the Archimedes transcriptions hidden in the palimpsest and another was to learn what they said. But taking precedence over both was the curator's responsibility to preserve the document.

"We have three branches to this really. One is...the most important one is the conservation, because the manuscript is so fragile and we have to take the book apart in order to read the Archimedes text. So conservation sort of comes before everything. It's a matter of very carefully taking the manuscript apart and caring for it in the best possible way," Noel said.

Over the months since, scholars used available technology -- ultraviolet scoping and other techniques -- to recover some of the writing. But much of it remained obscure. The existence of the Archimedes Palimpsest remained known mostly to specialists.

Now comes physicist Uwe Bergmann of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California, among the world's foremost laboratories for applying X-rays of greatly enhanced power. As Bergmann puts it:

"I'm trying to develop new techniques to use X-rays to study biological and other systems. That is what I really do," Bergmann said.

He learned of the document in Walters Art Museum from an article in the German magazine "Geo," and saw at once the possibilities for applying his specialty.

"And there was an article about the Archimedes Palimpsest in there. And when I read that the text was written with iron ink I, you know, it immediately occurred to me that we might be able to use our X-ray... our different X-ray methods or one of our different X-ray methods to read the palimpsest," Bergmann said.

The international science journal "Nature" reports in the 19 May issue that curator Noel, Walters Museum conservation director Abigail Quendt, and other specialists got together last week with Bergmann at the accelerator center and tested Bergmann's idea. "Nature" says it was a resounding success, rendering -- in the journal's words -- "a sharp image of the priceless text."

Bergmann himself displays an emotional enthusiasm for what the scientific team is doing. He says Archimedes laid a foundation for the technology that the Stanford lab is applying to gain access to Archimedean thought.

"It is amazing that one of the greatest minds of all times, who is pretty much the father of everything we are doing, that we can use this technology to try to understand how he was thinking, how his mind was actually operating. It's absolutely amazing. It's a huge loop actually," Bergmann said.

Archimedes was born 2,300 years ago at Syracuse on the island of Sicily, then in Greek hands. His work attracted only modest attention while he lived but is recognized now to have been of immense -- perhaps unmatched -- significance. He died at the age of 75 when Roman invaders captured and sacked Syracuse. It is said that the Roman soldier who killed him had no idea who he was.