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Lost manuscripts, recovered after exhaustive efforts, establish Archimedes as the founder of combinatorics

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In “Walters researchers decode the secrets of the Archimedes Palimpsest” Baltimore Sun, October 18, 2011), Mary Carole McCauley reports on the massive reconstruction job that has made available to us, after two millennia, the lost writings of the great, ancient Greek mathematician, Archimedes. It’s unfortunate that many know him only as the ancient Greek cartoon figure running naked and dripping through the streets shouting Eureka!, the bath attendant in hot pursuit.

Archimedes’ legacy extends to mathematical fields as diverse as calculus and computer science. He made groundbreaking discoveries in hydrostatics, which measures the pressure exerted by liquids because of gravity. He invented the catapult, the battering ram, pulleys and siege machines. He was the first person to explain mathematically how levers work. The Archimedes Screw, a mechanical device for raising water, is still used in Third World nations.

Because it does not require combustible power sources.

But, it wasn’t until the scholars visiting the Walters began to decipher the palimpsest that they established Archimedes as the founder of combinatorics, a type of mathematics frequently used in computer coding and game theory.

Another breakthrough was made by Revel Netz, a philosophy professor at Stanford University. He hypothesized a link between “The Stomachion” (in which Archimedes was working on what appeared to be a children’s game) to the modern field of combinatorics, which seeks how to determine how many different ways a single problem can be solved. It took modern scholars six weeks to determine that the answer that Archimedes gave for his puzzle — 17,152 — is in fact, correct.

The researchers paid their respects to the 10th-century scribe who copied down works by Archimedes of lasting importance. The palimpsest contains the only version of “On Floating Islands” in Greek — the mathematician’s native tongue. And it contains the only original versions anywhere of his “Method of Mechanical Theorems” and “The Stomachion.”

The story of how researchers found, exhaustively restored, and pored over the manuscript, using techniques that were being developed as they went, is an adventure in itself. As they put it, “12 years in Archimedes’ mind was like inhabiting a dwelling that was spacious, calm and radiated light.” It’s an ongoing mystery why that period of Greek history (600 BCE through 200 BCE) seems to have featured a number of people like that. There was, for example, Eratosthenes as well.

See also: Antikythera – an ancient mechanical instrument

4 Replies to “Lost manuscripts, recovered after exhaustive efforts, establish Archimedes as the founder of combinatorics

  1. 1

    The 20th century was a century of hubris. Of thinking that progress meant never having to be humble, never having to thank your mentors, never acknowledging a debt to history.

    I hope that this Archimedes discovery renews that sense of awe and wonder, that the ancients were “scary smart”, and perhaps then, so were the ancient Hebrews, and even more so, Adam and Eve. We, unfortunately, are the degenerate heirs of centuries of entropic decay, caused by the neglect of our epigenetic inheritance. If we find a ray of light, if we have a genius like Newton or Euler, it is only a genetic sport, an accident of grace. And the ediface of math and science we are erecting is painfully built on labors of thousands of much more common men.

    This should be our 21st century humility, lest the curse of the 20th century fall upon us.

  2. 2
    Collin says:

    I thought that Archimedes was owl on “The Sword in the Stone?” Just kidding.

    In Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” he makes the argument that many of our discoveries have been made before, but just lost or kept secret. I don’t know if he is right (he is a conspiracy theorist if there ever was one) but he points out that a lot of scientists (like Newton and Ben Franklin) were Masons and perhaps were privy to secret knowledge.
    Anyway, thanks “News” for the interesting post.

  3. 3
    tsmith says:

    very true…take the pyramids, the temple at bal-bek, puma punku…we either couldn’t do it, or would have a great deal of difficulty replicating what our ‘primative’ forefathers did.

  4. 4
    Robert Byers says:

    Ouch. BCE is a rejection of BC by people without authority to decide such things.

    The old greeks were not surprisingly sharp. They did little. Relativeness is no excuse.

    Didn’t invent siegh weapons. The bible mentions them long before this cat.

    The Athens etc folks simply were motivated just as we are.

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