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Sunday, May 22, 2011


The Archimedes Codex, by R.Netz and W. Noel (DaCapo Press, 2007), 312pp. (nonfiction).

This is the fascinating true story of a very old and valuable book (or codex, as it is termed by book historians) and the efforts necessary to restore and read it. The story begins almost 800 years ago.

In the Middle Ages, around the year 1229, a monk in a monastery is given the task of writing a book of prayers. Before he begins writing, however, the monk needs to construct a book in which to record his prayers. In the monastery’s library, he finds an old book written on vellum (animal skin) in a style of Greek that he can’t read, so he takes apart the book, erases the Greek writing as best he can, writes his prayers in Latin over the Greek and reassembles the book.

By a quirk of fate, the old book the monk used was a 400-year-old copy of writings by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, originally written on papyrus around the year 200 B.C. The fact that these original writings were exact copies of Archimedes’ writings (none of which are in existence any longer) would make the little prayer book extremely valuable, if only the monk hadn’t erased the old Greek when he wrote his prayers, but unfortunately there was no way of reading the erased words with the technology available in the 13th century—or at any time until very recently.

But then, fast forward: the prayer book is purchased in 1998 by a well-to-do businessman with an interest in history. Gambling that he can develop a new method of reading a book that has been erased and written over (this kind of book is called a palimpsest), he pays over $2,000,000 for it. The Archimedes Codex is the story of the team this purchaser assembles and their search for a brand-new way to be able to decipher the writing under the prayers. To give you an idea of the size of their task, it takes the team four years just to disassemble the book so it can be tested! At the same time, other members of the team are developing, with the latest physics of light reflection and refraction (and with the use of computers to interpret the data), a method of having Archimedes’ original 2000-year-old writings reappear. When this is accomplished, the experts in ancient Greek need to translate the text into English, which is especially tricky because the Greeks originally wrote only in capital letters without spaces between the words. How all this is accomplished is a fascinating story. It sounds as if it would be very technical, but the book is written by two team members who are teachers as well as historians, and they explain everything very clearly and with lots of diagrams and photos.

This book is great reading for anyone interested, as I am, in the history of books and writing, as well as in mathematics, science and computers, and you’re going to learn a whole lot of neat stuff as you read. For instance, did you know that all writing was done in capital letters until the ninth century when the monks copying old writings to be preserved found they could get more writing on a page if they used small letters that could be run together?

- Bruce Balas, Omena, Michigan

P.S. from PJ: To read about the wonderful world of books from another perspective, go to Jerry Dennis's blog today. It's a humdinger!


Gerry said...

This is the sort of topic that makes me wish for broadband. What a lot of interesting things there are to explore in the world.

In a way what we do now is very much like what the monks did. We write files over other files that we consider unimportant or outdated. I wonder if some 22nd Century scholars will spend their careers trying to restore my hard drive. I wish them well. I could never manage it myself.

Dawn said...

Good point Gerry. And this is the sort of book we should have read when I was in library school!

P. J. Grath said...

Ah, Gerry, our palimpsests are only machine-readable, and there's the rub! Dawn, you would probably be fascinated by this book. Bruce has shared other little nuggets from it with me, and it's on my to-read list.