What Is The Archimedes Palimpsest?

Only one of the great “overwrites” in world history.

We all get the look of despair in the computer world when we don’t save a file and it gets overwritten by some other information and we lose the original file. Or if there is a hard drive that crashes, wiping out all of your important photos and documents. That would be considered an “overwrite” into nothing.

But just as technology has greatly mitigated the file overwrite that so terrified us back in the day (thank you AutoSave!), technology has also gone a long way toward restoring the original “file” that is known as the Archimedes Palimpsest.

The Archimedes Palimpsest is one of the most well-known “overwrites” ever. It is a manuscript originally written by Archimedes, the famed Greek mathematician in the 3rd century B.C., and compiled in the 10th century, during the Byzantine Empire. It is a manuscript that is believed to be the only copy of two Archimedean works, known as The Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion.

In the 13th century, however, this manuscript was “overwritten” by some monks who turned it into part of a prayer book.  For centuries, it seemed that some of Archimedes’ work was going to be legend or a full-out myth. That is, until 1906, when a Danish expert on Archimedes’ work, Johan Heiberg, discovered the book and noted some of Archimedes’ writing under the prayer texts – the previous work had only been partially “erased.”  He could only read bits and pieces of the work, and then the prayer book went missing for more than 90 years, until it showed up at a Christie’s auction in 1998.

An anonymous American made a $2 million bid for the book, and a short time later it found its way to a museum in Baltimore, Md., where it has continually been studied and researched. A variety of technologies have been employed to try to extract more and more of the original Archimedean text. Ultraviolet, infrared, raking light as well as X-rays have been used to dig under the Christian prayers to find these original works.

Isidore of Miletus is credited with the first full compilation of Archimedes’ works, but the fu;l Method and Stomachion had been lost over the centuries. What has also been missing was the original Greek copy of On Floating Bodies, another mathematical treatise. The Palimpsest also contains On the Equilibrium of Planes, Measurement of a Circle, Spiral Lines, and On the Sphere and Cylinder.

One of the highlights of the recent scholarly work has been the revelation that Archimedes seems to postulate a concept of what is called actual infinity in math, which was a concept that had only been known in the 19th century, though Archimedes was working 22 centuries earlier on an idea that essentially set the tone for the field of calculus.

The value of the information being culled from this work seems to far outweigh the $2 million bid, and interest in the Palimpsest over the last 15 years has grown within the math world and curiosity has continued to expand in science and in art.