Uncovering Archimede's Lost Codex
Since 1999, Noel has been leading the preservation of a manuscript known as Archimedes Palimpsest.
The Palimpsest is a unique Byzantine prayer book consisting of scrolls containing secret writings from three previously unknown original texts:
Treatises by Archimedes; the works of the 4th century Attic Orator Hyperides;
And a 3rd century commentary on Aristotle’s Categories by an unknown author.
Using a powerful particle accelerator, Noel and his team were able to reveal the hidden text and publish all of their images and findings on the Internet, freely accessible to anyone under a Creative Commons license.
Noel currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where he curates at Walters and works to provide the public with free digital access to his collection.
The important works of the ancient world do not reach us in their original form. They survive because medieval scribes wrote them down, their copies, and copies of those copies. And so is the case with Archimedes, the great Greek mathematician.
As a mathematician, we know everything we know about Archimedes thanks to the three books A, B and C. The A was lost in 1564 by an Italian humanist. B was last heard of in 1311 in Viterbo, a hundred miles north of Rome, in the Pope’s library. Inscription C was discovered in 1906 and arrived at my desk in Baltimore on January 19, 1999. The inscription here is C.
Inscription C is actually buried inside this book. A buried treasure. Because this is actually a prayer book. It was finished on April 14, 1229 by a man named Johannes Myrones. And he used parchment to write this prayer book. But he did not use new scrolls. He used recycled scrolls from older manuscripts and had seven of them. And Archimedes’ Inscription C was one of these seven. He separated Archimedes’ manuscripts and seven other manuscripts and erased all the writings, And he cut the papers in the middle and shuffled them all together, put them together at a 90 degree angle, and wrote prayers on these books. And as a result, these seven manuscripts were lost for 700 years, and now we have a prayer book.
The prayer book was discovered by this man, Johan Ludvig Heiberg, in 1906. And he deciphered as much writing as he could with just a magnifying glass. And the thing is, he found two unique inscriptions inside this manuscript. They were certainly not A and B; They were completely new Archimedean writings and were called “Method” and “Stomachion”. And it became a world-famous manuscript.
By now it has been understood that this book is in a very bad state. In the 20th century, Heiberg was in much worse shape when he saw it. It had forged papers written on it, and it had gotten really bad from the humidity. This book is absolutely the definition of “depreciation”. This is the kind of book you think would happen at an institute. But it is not held in an institute, it was bought by a private buyer in 1998.
Why did he buy this book? Because he wanted to keep this fragile thing safe. Because the only one wanted to replicate this thing. He wanted to make this expensive thing cheap. And he did it because it was a matter of principle. Because not many people will read Archimedes from Ancient Greek, but they should have a chance to read it.
And Archimedes gathered his supporters together and promised to finance all the work. And it was an expensive job, but actually not as expensive as you might think, because these people were coming for Archimedes, not for money. People from many different branches gathered. There were those who dealt with particle physics, those who dealt with classical linguistics, those who were in the business of preserving books, those who were engaged in mathematics, those who were engaged in data management, and those who were engaged in scientific design and program management. And they got together to work on this manuscript.
The first problem they faced was with the preservation of the book. And that was something we really had to deal with: there was glue on the spine of the book. And if you look carefully at this photo, you’ll see that the underside is a little brownish. And this glue is transparent carpenter’s glue. If you are a book repair person, you can easily remove this glue. The top is Elmer wood glue. A water-insoluble polyvinyl acetate emulsion once dry. And even harder than the parchment on which it was written. So before we started to study Archimedes, we had to dissect this book. The disassembly took four years. And this is one of the rare shots taken on the job, ladies and gentlemen.
Another thing was that we had to get rid of all the polish because it was used in the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church and they used paraffin. The wax was dirty and we could not see what was behind the wax. So we had to mechanically scrape the lacquer very carefully.
It’s hard to say exactly how badly this book was, but it kept breaking into tiny pieces. Normally you wouldn’t worry about such small pieces in a book, but these small pieces could contain Archimedes’ unique manuscript. We finally managed to put the small pieces in the right places.
Then, after we did that, we started viewing the manuscript. We viewed the manuscript in 14 different wavelengths of light. Because when you look at something in different wavelengths of light, you see different things. And here you see a page viewed in 14 different wavelengths of light.
But none of them worked. Then we processed all the images and put the two images on one blank screen. Here you see two different views of Archimedes’ manuscript. The image on the left is a normal red image. On the right is the ultraviolet image. And in the picture on the right you can see some of Archimedes’ writings. If you put them together on a digital canvas, the parchment looks glossy in both images and glossy when combined. The prayer book is dark in both images and looks dark when combined. Archimedes’ writings are dark in one painting and bright in the other. And when combined, it will appear as dark but red, and then you can start reading the texts in a clear way. This is how it looks.
This is a before-after photo, but that’s not how you read the text on the screen. You’re getting closer, you’re getting closer, you’re getting closer, and now you can read.
If you process the same two images differently, you can get rid of the writings of the prayer book. And this is extremely important, because the drawings in the manuscript are Archimedes’ BC. The only source of the shapes he drew on the sand in the 4th century. And here they are, I can show you.
With this kind of imaging — this infrared, ultraviolet, invisible light imaging — we would never be able to see beyond the gold-lined imitation images. How would we do this? We got the manuscript and decided to image it with fluorescent x-rays. In the left drawing, an x-ray comes in and knocks an electron out of the orbit of the atom. And that electron disappears. And as soon as this disappears, an electron from higher orbits comes and takes its place. And when it takes its place, it emits electromagnetic radiation. It reveals an x-ray. And this x-ray is unique to the atom it hits at its wavelength.
And what we wanted to achieve was iron. Because the ink was written in iron. And if we can pinpoint this resulting x-ray, where that ray came from, we can locate all of the iron on the page, and then theoretically we can read the whole image.
The problem is that a very powerful light source is needed to do this. So we took the inscriptions to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory in California, which is a particle accelerator. Electrons spin in one direction, Positrons in the other. They meet in the middle and give rise to subatomic particles such as the charm quark or tau lepton. Of course, we were not going to put Archimedes under that beam. But as electrons spin at the speed of light, they emit x-rays. And this is the most powerful light source in the solar system. It’s called synchrotron radiation, and it’s normally used to look at things like proteins. But we wanted to look at atoms, iron atoms so we could read the page before and after. And guess what, we saw that we could do it. It took roughly 17 minutes to implement this for a single page.
So what did we discover? One of Archimedes’ unique inscriptions is called “Stomachion.” And this is not mentioned in the A or B inscriptions. All we know is that it contains the drawing of this square, This perfect square, which is divided into 14 parts. But no one knew what Archimedes intended with these 14 pieces. Now we think we know that. He was trying to figure out how many different ways he could combine these 14 pieces to form a perfect square. Anyone want to guess the answer? The answer is 17,152 variations generated from 536 basic solutions. And what makes it so important is that this is the earliest known combination work in mathematics. And combination is a wonderful and very interesting branch of mathematics.
What is truly breathtaking about this manuscript is that we looked at other manuscripts that had the writings that the scribes used in making this book erased and other inscriptions written on it, and one of the inscriptions contained the writings of Hyperides. Hyperides BC. 4th century Athenian orator. He was an exact contemporary of Demosthenes. And BC In 338, he and Demosthenes together decided to oppose the military might of King Philip II of Macedon. Thus, Athens and Thebes began to fight the Macedonian King Philip. This was a bad idea because King Philip of Macedon had a son named Alexander the Great and they lost the Battle of Chaeronea.
Alexander the Great set out to conquer the entire known world; Hyperides found himself in court on charges of treason. And this is his speech in court — and it’s a great speech: “The best of them all,” he says, “will win. But if you didn’t win, you must have fought for a lofty cause, because only then will you be remembered. Think of the Spartans. They have won countless victories, but no one remembers what they were because they fought for selfish causes. The only war the Spartans fought and everyone remembers was the Battle of Thermophile, where they were slain by one man but fought for the freedom of Greece.” It was such a good speech that the Athenian courts released him. He lived another 10 years, then the Macedonian band caught up with him. They cut off his tongue to make fun of his provocative speech and no one knows what they did to his body.
At this point, I must say that when you normally look at medieval manuscripts that have been erased, you will not find unique inscriptions. And finding two of these in a manuscript is a really big deal. Finding three is utterly bizarre. And we found three.
Aristotle’s “Categories” is one of the heuristic texts of Western philosophy. And on top of that, we found a 3rd century AD version, probably written by Galen and perhaps Porphyry.
And now we put all the data we collect, all the images, all the raw footage, all the copy we’ve made and all the transcriptions like that, on the internet for anyone to use for any advertising purpose under a Creative Commons license.
Why did the author of the manuscript do this? He did this because in addition to understanding data, he also understands books. And the thing about books is that if you want to make sure they’re going to benefit people over a long period of time, you have to keep them in closets and let very few people look at them. The thing with data is that if you want them to stay, you have to have as little control over that data as possible and let everyone have it. And that’s what he did.
And institutions have something to learn from this. Because right now, institutions are imprisoning their data with copyright restrictions and doing things like that. And if you want to look for medieval manuscripts online, you have to go right now to the national library of site Y or the university library of site X, which is almost the most boring way to get digital data. What you want to do is gather them all together.
Because the web of ancient manuscripts of the future is not created by institutions, but by internet users, by users who gather this data, by people who want to collect maps wherever they are found, by people who want to put together medieval romance novels wherever they are found, beautiful things of their own choosing. It will be established by people who want to bring them together. And this is the future of the internet. And that’s a very attractive and beautiful future, if only we could make it happen.
We, at the Walters Art Museum, followed this example and uploaded all the manuscripts we have on the internet for people to enjoy — all the raw data, all the illustrations, all the metadata — under the Creative Commons license Walters Museum of Art is a small museum and a very beautiful handheld It has writes but the data is gorgeous. And as a result, if you now search Google images and type -for example- “enlightened manuscript Quran”, 24 of every 28 images you will find are from my institute.
Now, let’s think about that for a minute, shall we? What good does this do for the institute? There is a wide variety of things that benefit the institute. You can talk about the social sciences or stuff like that, but let’s talk about the selfish stuff. Because what actually benefits the institute is this: Why do people go to the Louvre? To see the Mona Lisa. Why are they going to see the Mona Lisa? Because they already know what it looks like. And they know what it looks like because they’ve seen your photos almost everywhere.
There is really no need for all these restrictions. I think all institutes should defend this and release all the data they have under unrestricted licenses. So it benefits everyone. Why don’t we let all people have access to this data, build their own collections of ancient knowledge and wonderful, beautiful things, to increase the beauty and cultural wealth of the Internet?
Indeed, thank you all so much.