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The Story of the Archimedes Manuscript June 23, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Archaeology Greece, Science, Technology.

For 2,000 years, the document written by one of antiquity’s greatest mathematicians was ill treated, torn apart and allowed to decay. Now, US historians have decoded the Archimedes book. But is it really new?

When the Romans advanced to Sicily in the Second Punic War and finally captured the proud city of Syracuse, one of their soldiers met an old man who, surrounded by the din of battle, was calmly drawing geometric figures in the sand. “Do not disturb my circles,” the eccentric old man called out. The legionnaire killed him with his sword.

That, at least, is the legend. The truth is a different story altogether. Placed in charge of King Hieron II’s artillery equipment, Archimedes later played an important military role during the siege of Syracuse. He invented powerful catapults to defend his homeland, using cranes to hurl heavy boulders from the walls of the fortress at enemy ships. Mirrors were also used, it is said, to direct burning rays of sunlight at the Roman armada, setting the ships on fire. The Sicilians resisted the onslaught of the ambitious Roman republic for more than two years.

In short, had the legionnaire really speared the eccentric old man with his sword, he would have done the Romans a great service. In addition to being an oddball scholar, Archimedes was a skilled inventor of weapons.

How Many Grains of Sand > He was so skilled, in fact, that it almost seemed that he could stop Rome’s large army single-handedly. But in the end Archimedes fell victim to brute force after all. One of the greatest inventors of all time, Archimedes was killed at the age of 73. His murder, notes British philosopher Paul Strathern, was “the Romans’ only decisive contribution to mathematics.”

Archimedes prepared the way for integral calculus and approximated the number Pi. He discovered the law of leverage and invented new formulas to calculate the properties of cylinders and spheres. He once yelled “Eureka” while bathing, after having dreamed up the concept of specific weight while splashing around. He even specified the number of grains of sand that could fit into the universe: 1063. Until then the Greeks had merely left it at a “myriad” (or 10,000).

“It took almost 2,000 years before anyone else could hold a candle to him,” Strathern says about this extraordinary man, who lived from 285 to 212 B.C. But brilliance had its drawbacks. Archimedes was often so engrossed in thought that he would forget to eat — and he bathed infrequently. But aside from that, researchers know little about this oddball from the early days of geometry and mechanics. Unfortunately many of his writings were lost, while the rest have been handed down in the form of Arabic and Latin copies. Vandals destroyed his famous planetarium, with its water-powered wheelworks.

But now a Greek original has been discovered after all. In “The Archimedes Codex,” recently published in English, two US researchers describe the decoding of a manuscript from the early days of mathematics. It took the authors years of painstaking work to “extract the secrets from these faded letters.”

Old Manuscript for $2.2 Million > The Beck publishing house, which will first publish the German edition on Sept. 17, is also heavily promoting the book. With a scheduled initial printing of 20,000 copies, Beck is advertising the book as an “important work.” “Our scientific view of the world is turned upside down,” the publisher raves in the press release.

The fuss revolves around a manuscript that caused an uproar once before, in October 1998, when a fragile, handwritten manuscript with mold spots and blackened edges was offered for sale in an auction at Christie’s in New York. After a contentious bidding war, the auctioneer’s hammer fell at a price of $2.2 million.

An anonymous “billionaire from the computer industry” had apparently purchased the rare work. But who was it? Neither the auction house nor the new owner was willing to answer that question. Insiders are now certain that it was Jeffrey Bezos, the founder and CEO of online book retailer Amazon.

The cloak-and-dagger operation makes sense, given the dark suspicions attached to the Archimedes manuscript. Legal papers suggest that the wood-bound math tome was stolen in the Middle East. The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem has gone to court twice, both times unsuccessfully, in an effort to gain control over the document. But the conflict continues to simmer.

At least the wealthy US buyer was accommodating enough to lend the manuscript to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. As a museum employee recalls, “Mr. B.” carried the booklover’s gem in a “blue bag” up the marble staircase and into the columned foyer of the building, which is built in the style of a Genovese Renaissance palace.

The loan has triggered a flurry of excitement at the Walters, which also features Egyptian funeral papyrus and Napoleon’s diaries in its collection. Greek scholars, physicists and digital photographers are attempting to decode the tattered work. According to curator William Noel, the work is “not much bigger than a box of sugar cubes” and consists of 174 “rigid and warped” pages. “The book,” says Noel, “was on the verge of disintegrating.”

Bombarded with X-Rays > Read the rest of this article and view related photos at > Spiegel

Article by Matthias Schulz. Copyright by Spiegel Online.

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