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