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Karl-Dieter Crisman

Better Than "The Da Vinci Code"

Two glimpses of ancient science.

In bestsellers and movies, unlocking the secrets of the past is a combination of luck, smarts, and sex appeal. Rarely does it labor under the burden of full scientific rigor, and often the science serves the plot line, not vice versa. A television adaptation a few years ago of one such novel (which shall remain nameless) included, among other implausibilities, an archaeologist not realizing a lost city could be located under a desert landscape and the use of an astrolabe to find an exact position—at sea![1]

But there is still real adventure to be found in demystifying ancient artifacts and documents. Decoding the Heavens, by science journalist Jo Marchant, outlines the discovery and slow piecing together of a remarkable Greek orrery, while the story of The Archimedes Codex is detailed to us by Reviel Netz and William Noel, two of the main scholars involved in uncovering its mathematical (and other) revelations. Here, the miniseries got it right; as amply borne out in these books, painstaking deciphering of texts, the use of modern imaging techniques, and very personal stakes in the outcome are part and parcel of this trade.

The short version of the tale in the longer and more technical book of the two, The Archimedes Codex, goes like this. During the Punic Wars, Archimedes of Syracuse (in modern Sicily) made astounding mathematical and scientific advances, including bringing to its climax a method similar to integral calculus called exhaustion. Eventually, some of his works were copied onto parchment codices. Most were lost, but at Easter in 1229, a Byzantine priest finished a prayer book, reusing the parchment from one of these codices. When it reappeared nearly 700 years later, philologist Johan Heiberg recognized this as concealing unknown works of Archimedes—upon which the manuscript went missing again. In 1998, it reappeared again, this time at auction, and was purchased by an anonymous private collector, who promptly devoted massive resources at conserving ...

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