Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Eureka! -- Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes -- εὕρηκα !

The Archimedes screw can raise water efficiently


     In 1999, the Walters Art Museum and a team of researchers began a project to read the erased texts of The Archimedes Palimpsestthe oldest surviving copy of works by the greatest mathematical genius of antiquity. Over 12 years, many techniques were employed by over 80 scientists and scholars in the fields of conservation, imaging and classical studies. The exhibition Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes will tell the story of The Archimedes Palimpsest's journey and the discovery of new scientific, philosophical and political texts from the ancient world. This medieval manuscript demonstrates that Archimedes discovered the mathematics of infinity, mathematical physics and combinatorics—a branch of mathematics used in modern computing. This exhibition will be on view at the Walters from Oct. 16, 2011-Jan. 1, 2012.


Archimedes is said to have remarked of the lever: "Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth."  (Illustration from Mechanics Magazine, 1824, London)


Mending splits and tears on fols. 4-5 with remoistenable tissue. ©the owner of The Archimedes Palimpsest, licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights.

       On Oct. 28, 1998, The Archimedes Palimpsest was purchased at Christie's by an anonymous collector for two million dollars. It is considered by many to be the most important scientific manuscript ever sold at auction because it contains Archimedes' erased texts.

        "The collector deposited the Palimpsest at the Walters for conservation, imaging, study and exhibition in 1999, but many thought that nothing more could be recovered from this book. It was in horrible condition, having suffered a thousand years of weather, travel and abuse," said Archimedes Project Director and Walters Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books Will Noel. "Detailed detective work and the serendipitous discovery of important documents and photographs allowed us to reconstruct what happened to the Palimpsest in the 20th century, when it was subject to appalling treatment and overpainted with forgeries. A team of devoted scholars using the latest imaging technology was able to reveal and decipher the original text." 

A sphere has 2/3 the volume and surface area of its circumscribing cylinder. A sphere and cylinder were placed on the tomb of Archimedes at his request.

     In 2000, a team began recovering the erased texts. They used imaging techniques that rely on the processing of different wavelengths of infrared, visible and ultraviolet light in a technique called multispectral imaging. By employing different processing techniques, including Principal Components Analysis, text was exposed that had not been seen in a thousand years.

        By 2004, about 80% of the manuscript had been imaged. The most difficult pages left were covered with a layer of grime or 20th-century painted forgeries. These leaves were brought to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), one of the most advanced light laboratories in the world, where a tiny but powerful x-ray beam scanned the leaves. The x-rays detected and recorded where beams bounced off iron atoms, and since the ink of the Palimpsest's under text is written with iron, the writing on the page could be mapped. This enabled scholars to read large sections of previously hidden text

Tomb of Archimedes, Syracuse, Sicily

       "I documented everything and saved all of the tiny pieces from the book, including paint chips, parchment fragments and thread, and put them into sleeves so we knew what pages they came from," said Abigail Quandt, Walters senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books. "I stabilized the flaking ink on the parchment using a gelatin solution, made innumerable repairs with Japanese paper and reattached separated folios."

Domenico Fetti, Archimedes, 1620 

Discoveries In The Archimedes Palimpsest

        Archimedes, in his treatise The Method of Mechanical Theorems, works with the concept of absolute infinity, and this Palimpsest contains the only surviving copy of this important treatise. He claims that two different sets of lines are equal in multitude, even though it is clearly understood that they are infinite. This approach is remarkably similar to 16th- and 17th-century works leading to the invention of the calculus.

        Also found only in the Palimpsest is Archimedes' Stomachion. It is the earliest existing western treatise concerning combinatorics. It is thought that Archimedes was trying to discover how many ways you could recombine 14 fixed pieces and still make a perfect square. The answer is high and counterintuitive at 17,152 combinations. Combinatorics is critical in modern computing.

    In addition to Archimedes' works, six other erased books of history and philosophy were discovered. Twenty pages of the Palimpsest were created from the erased texts of ten pages from a manuscript containing speeches by Hyperides, an Athenian orator from the golden age of Greek democracy. Twenty-eight pages were from the erased text of 14 pages containing a Commentary on the Categories of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle's Categories is a fundamental text to western philosophy. This commentary survives nowhere else.

      When the Palimpsest was imaged at SSRL, the name of the scribe that erased Archimedes' writings was discovered on the first page of the Palimpsest. His name was Johannes Myronas, and he finished transcribing the prayers on April 14, 1229, in Jerusalem

Archimedes Crater,  50 miles or 82 kilometers in diameter, is one of the most picturesque craters on the Moon. It consists of a flat floored ring of mountains, and lacks the central peak typical of craters of this size because the interior has been flooded with lava flows.

Future Conservation Research

     The exhibition Lost and Found: The Secret of Archimedes will demonstrate what we have discovered at the Walters. The last two galleries in the exhibition will look at what the museum hopes to discover in the future and how scientific discovery can enhance our understanding and appreciation of artworks. The interactive learning stations in these galleries will include five pieces from the museum's collection and will demonstrate how the staff at the Walters collaborates to learn about art and on how to best maintain and preserve this art for posterity. Conservation, interpretation and authenticity will be explored as well as new scientific techniques being used at the Walters.


During the siege of Syracuse, one defense was Archimedes Claw . The claw consisted of long poles that dropped large weights or hooks through the Roman ships then lifted them, via levers , from the water and  dropped them, stern first, back into the sea.Other defenses were systems of both catapult and crossbow with selective ranges allowing for a continuous assault on the Romans regardless of their range from the city.


Because we live much closer to Baltimore than London, site of the Rivers Of Ice noted yesterday, I am more likely to (and in fact will) visit this remarkable exhibition. Those who know me know that I am prone to quoting Archimedes (and undoubtedly countless other ancient Greek speakers), invariably exclaiming "Eureka!" when making discoveries great and small.    What could be more descriptive, more satisfying, a greater release?

Archimedes died c. 212 BC during the Second Punic War, when Roman forces under General Marcus Claudius Marcellus captured the city of Syracuse after a two-year-long siege. According to the popular account given by Plutarch, Archimedes was contemplating a mathematical diagram when the city was captured. A Roman soldier commanded him to come and meet General Marcellus but he declined, saying that he had to finish working on the problem. The soldier was enraged by this, and killed Archimedes with his sword.   Plutarch also gives a lesser-known account of the death of Archimedes which suggests that he may have been killed while attempting to surrender to a Roman soldier. According to this story, Archimedes was carrying mathematical instruments, and was killed because the soldier thought that they were valuable items. General Marcellus was reportedly angered by the death of Archimedes, as he considered him a valuable scientific asset and had ordered that he not be harmed.

The last words attributed to Archimedes are "Do not disturb my circles" (Greek: μ μου τος κύκλους τάραττε), a reference to the circles in the mathematical drawing that he was supposedly studying when disturbed by the Roman soldier. 

And so, in honor of this rainy October morning, and of my beloved dog Andy Warhol Roberts who is recovering from his unexpected back surgery, I commend this exhibition to you because it offers analytical brilliance and inspired genius (rare actual qualities, not merely indiscriminate and misused journalist words) in full measure.  Lying (whether to yourself or others) is easy; searching for, testing for, and discovering and and publishing the truth is difficult and sometimes fraught with danger


  1. Amazing tale, wondrous post, Curtis. Bravo.

    I never expected to hear myself saying this, but that is two million dollars well spent.

    Perhaps the most moving part of the palimpsest, the last. A small tear for Andy Warhol.

  2. AW says hi. Thanks for your kind words. I'm looking forward to seeing this. Work of this kind (both the original work and the restoration) astonishes me. Curtis