Friday, February 22, 2013

Archimedes uncovered

Several years ago now, I invited a friend to my "museum" and as we were talking, a curious coincidence arose. I happened to ask her what her favorite word was, and she replied "palimpsest" - which just so happens to be my favorite word, too! So when long time reader Chase linked me to a BBC documentary about Archimedes' palimpsest, I knew it had to be added to the Cabinet. The story is incredible:
"The trail begins in the tenth century, when a scribe made a unique copy of the most important mathematics that Archimedes ever developed. For 200 years the document survived, but the mathematics in it was so complex that no one paid it any attention. So when one day a monk was looking for some new parchment - an expensive commodity at the time - to write a new prayer book, the answer seemed obvious. He used the Archimedes manuscript. He washed the Greek text off the pages, cut them in half, rebound them, and turned the Archimedes manuscript into an everyday prayer book. As he piously wrote out his prayers, he had no idea of the genius he was obliterating."
The text, painstakingly uncovered over the past 12 years, proves that Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287 B.C.E. – c. 212 B.C.E.) had come to grips with the idea of infinity and was beginning to develop calculus more than 1,000 years before these concepts were understood. The point of the documentary (well worth watching if you have an hour, see it here) is that the world would be a much different place had Archimedes' ideas been understood and disseminated.

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