Uncovering Old Math

It has been around the world, battered and burned, then left to grow damp and moldy. Yet within its parchment pages lie the secrets of Archimedes’ mind.

It looks like an ancient prayer book. But look closer and you’ll see something written beneath the text. The document is a palimpsest — a twice-used manuscript — and the underlying words are seven treatises of Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician who pioneered the notion of combining abstract concepts with concrete math.

The theorems are barely visible to the naked eye, however, and because the parchment is in such poor shape, deciphering the influential mathematician’s ideas will take more than your run-of-the-mill decoder ring.

Currently, two teams of scientists are working to uncover Archimedes’ musings.

Words Scrubbed Off the Page

First completed around AD 1000 by a scribe in Constantinople, the Greek manuscript was likely a copy of a copy of a copy of the original papyrus scroll. Two hundred years after its creation, however, the document was given a facelift. Sometime during the Crusades, a local scribe scrubbed off the ink, cut the book’s leaves in half, and rotated the pages 90degrees. Then he wrote on the parchment again.

The prayer book then disappeared until 1907, when it was translated by a classics scholar. It didn’t resurface again until 1998, when it was sold at a Christie’s auction to an anonymous collector who placed the document in the care of the Walters Museum in Baltimore.

Over the centuries, the parchment had been severely damaged by water, fire, even forgery. In a recent attempt to increase the value of the prayer book, someone painted miniature evangelical portraits in gold leaf on four pages.

The Ugliest Manuscript

Today, the parchment is covered in purple specks and eaten through in places, says William Noel, an associate curator at Walters. He describes it as “the ugliest manuscript I’ve ever seen — the color of really bad, mottled, rotting flesh.” Which is exactly what it is, of course.

Two teams of scientists are competing to make this manuscript speak — an imaging team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a group of scientists at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, N.Y. The Walters Museum will ask the team with the most promising results to examine all of the manuscript’s 174 pages.

“It’s sort of a ‘history of mathematics’ genome project,” says Bill Christens-Barry, a physicist at Johns Hopkins and a member of the imaging team. “We’re trying to look at the foundation of elements of the whole field by stitching together very small fragments of information to understand the whole.”

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