Monday, October 17, 2011

Archimedes' Palimpsest

"Finding Archimedes in the Shadows"


Edward Rothstein

October 16th, 2011

The New York Times

“The Archimedes Palimpsest” could well be the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, though its plot’s esoteric arcana might also be useful for Dan Brown in his next variation on “The Da Vinci Code.” It features a third-century B.C. Greek mathematician (Archimedes) known for his playful brilliance; his lost writings, discovered more than a hundred years ago in an Istanbul convent; and various episodes involving plunder, pilferage and puzzling forgeries. The saga includes a monastery in the Judaean desert, a Jewish book dealer trying to flee Paris as the Nazis closed in, a French freedom fighter and an anonymous billionaire collector.

At the center is an ancient volume, its parchment recycled into a 13th-century prayer book. And at the climax we see those old folios, charred at the edges and scarred by dripping wax from the candles of devout monks, being meticulously studied for 12 years by an international team using the most advanced imaging technologies of the 21st century. And what is found is more revelatory than had ever been expected.

The Archimedes Palimpsest has precisely this history. It really does begin with a 10th-century copy of Archimedes’ third-century B.C. writings. Three centuries later they were scraped off the parchment, which was reused — creating a “palimpsest.” And while there aren’t enough dead bodies or secret cabals to support a full-fledged thriller, there really is a sense of excitement in the account of the book’s history, restoration and meanings, at an exhibition at the Walters Art Museum here: “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes.”

Almost nothing about the tale is banal or ordinary. In a companion book, “The Archimedes Codex” (Da Capo), William Noel, the museum’s curator of manuscripts, describes how the saga was brought to its conclusion. In 1998, after reading about the Palimpsest’s sale at a Christie’s auction to an anonymous purchaser for $2 million, the museum’s director, Gary Vikan, suggested to Mr. Noel that he discover who bought it and whether it might be exhibited at the Walters.

The purchaser not only deposited the book with Mr. Noel but also provided funds for the project, as scientists and other experts took it apart for restoration and research. The owner, who remains anonymous, also stipulated that all the findings and images be made available to the public. (Next month Cambridge University Press is publishing a two-volume account of the team’s discoveries.)

It may be difficult, at first, to understand the fuss. At the exhibition’s start you come face to face with two leaves from the Palimpsest; all you see is a fragment of a ruined manuscript, charred, stained and inscribed with prayers. But lines of reddish text, scarcely visible, run perpendicular to those prayers. And you can also make out the ghost of a diagram, a spiral. Above these leaves a series of slides shows the same pages under colored lights, revealing various details.

The juxtaposition neatly demonstrates the challenge posed by the Palimpsest and the technology used to explore it. The effort is made more complicated by the Palimpsest’s nature. After being erased, each leaf was rotated 90 degrees and folded in half, one Archimedes page yielding two of the prayer book’s.

That book was apparently in use for centuries at the Monastery of St. Sabbas in the Judaean Desert. Its towers peek out of the rocks in one of David Roberts’s otherworldly Holy Land illustrations from 1842, shown here. But by then the book was gone. In 1844 a biblical scholar happened upon it at the Metochion of the Holy Sepulcher in Istanbul and saw the curious mathematics underneath; a leaf from the book was found in his estate and deposited at Cambridge University Library.

Then, in 1906, the Danish Archimedes scholar Johan Ludvig Heiberg saw the book in Istanbul and recognized seven treatises by Archimedes behind the prayers, making it the oldest source for his writings in existence and the sole source for two unknown works, “Method” and “Stomachion.” Heiberg deciphered much of the text and took photographs that he worked on in Copenhagen.

It was assumed that Heiberg discovered all there was to find out, which may be one reason that, when the battered volume was put on sale almost a century later, few buyers were panting after its riches.

What became startling to the Walters, though, was the extent of the restoration required. Through much of the 20th century the Palimpsest had disappeared. Heiberg’s photographs juxtaposed with leaves of the book show how ruinous that century was for its condition. Some leaves disappeared. Illustrations of Evangelists, forged to look medieval, were inexplicably painted on some pages.

As part of the restoration the book’s history was examined and is surveyed here. There was the devastating impact of World War I on Istanbul’s Greek communities, which affected a large number of artifacts. Some damage may have happened at the Metochion. Similar stains appear in another Metochion book at the Walters.

The exhibition also notes that in 1932 the Palimpsest had been offered for sale by a Jewish dealer in Paris, Salomon Guerson, who recognized its importance. But no purchasers were found. The suggestion is made that Guerson may have ultimately been responsible for the forged illustrations, seeking to raise money to escape Nazi-occupied Paris by creating a more attractive volume. (A green pigment used in the paintings was only available after 1938.) Later the Palimpsest came into the possession of Guerson’s friend Marie Louis Sirieix, a Resistance fighter whose daughter Ann married Guerson’s son; Ann put the manuscript up for sale in 1998.

The exhibition also explores the heroic restoration guided by Abigail Quandt, the museum’s senior conservator of manuscripts, as she attempted to dissolve mid-20th-century glues, examine fragments and remove debris, until contemporary technologies could reveal what the naked eye could not.

Some revelations have become public, including the discovery of two speeches from the great fourth-century B.C. orator Hyperides. In addition one of Archimedes’ works, “Stomachion,” was uncovered in enough detail to be interpreted by Reviel Netz, a classicist at Stanford University and co-author of the companion book: it was an attempt to examine how many ways a set of pieces can be arranged in the form of a square. Visitors are challenged to move colored pieces of felt to explore that question, a style of inquiry, Mr. Netz suggests, that had not been associated with Greek mathematics. As for the title “Stomachion,” the exhibition tells us: “In the ancient world, if you had a puzzle, you didn’t have a brain-teaser — you had stomach trouble.”

The show’s final gallery, which turns to the documents’ substance, is almost too cursory. Instead of the museum including a gallery detailing other restoration projects, it would have been far more illuminating to extend this mathematical section further.

Turn instead to the companion book and read about Archimedes’ geometric proofs. Mr. Netz argues that this manuscript’s diagrams may be closest to the ones Archimedes drew. They were not meant to be pictorial, he says. In fact, if they seemed to illustrate the conclusion too closely, they would appear more like examples than proofs.

So we see straight lines deliberately shown as curves; points placed off kilter; and here at the show, an unusual example in a discussion of floating bodies (the subject that led to the story of Archimedes leaping out of the bath in the ecstasy of insight and running naked outside shouting “Eureka!”). The diagram shows an inverted semicircle sitting inside an incomplete liquid sphere.

Archimedes, the exhibition suggests, created a “radical idealization of real-world phenomena.” But it may also be that he knew that the ideal world of straight lines and regular objects was only an approximation of the real world’s curves and complexities. Such approximations and calculations were among his preoccupations. Mr. Netz sees anticipations of 17th-century calculus and of other aspects of modern mathematics.

And we see, throughout, hints of someone standing triumphant at the borders of the ancient world, peering at us through accumulated catastrophes and layers of destruction, and surviving — just like the hero of any good thriller.

EUREKA! or "Archimedes and the Golden Crown"

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