Recovering Lost Greek Treasures and the Genius of Archimedes

Leonidas Petrakis, PhD

(The author holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He was Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and now resides in Oakland, CA)

“Archimedes is the most important scientist who ever lived” states the Israeli classicist Reviel Netz, Professor of Classics and Philosophy at Stanford University, in a just published book on the contributions of the great Greek mathematician, scientist, and engineer who lived and worked in Syracuse, in Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) in the third century BC. The book, coauthored with William Noel, Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, tells of the evidence of how incredibly advanced and wide-ranging were the mathematical and scientific discoveries of Archimedes, and how much modern science and technology owe to his genius. The contents of the manuscript (The Archimedes Palimpsest) of long lost works are truly revolutionizing the history of science.

Archimedes, mythologized for his “Eureka!” when he supposedly ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, has long been recognized as a seminal contributor to mathematical, scientific and technological developments. He founded the sciences of mechanics (he is reputed to have claimed that he could move the Earth with his levers!) and of hydrostatics; invented machines that are still in use today (the famous “screw” for irrigation and drainage); and contributed to the defense of his city against the Romans (his “mechanical claws” and “burning glass” caused much damage to the Roman warships).

Archimedes however preferred “pure” academic research. As Plutarch tells us he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life. And indeed his mathematical contributions were far more significant and of lasting value –although they have found utilitarian applications as well, as eventually all “pure” academic endeavors seem to. He had a deep understanding of key scientific concepts, such as infinity, and investigated these concepts through the use of elegant geometric approaches. In addition to developing advanced mathematical tools, he pioneered the mathematization of the physical sciences, i.e., the use of abstract mathematical first principles in his search for understanding of physical systems. His methodology influenced the giants of the scientific revolution, from Galileo to Descartes to Newton. “Archimedes’ children” adopted the Archimedean approach in their own efforts to understand the workings of the universe, and, as Professor Netz puts it, “Western science is but a series of footnotes to Archimedes.”

One of his greatest contributions was his shaping the branch of mathematics known as integral calculus, a corner stone of modern science and technology. Integral calculus allows the addition of an infinite number of quantities, and it is central in the solution of all problems of motion, for example navigation of aircraft and space vehicles. Its discovery in its present form in the 17th century brought about one of the most-bitter disputes in the history of mathematics, with both England’s Isaac Newton and the German philosopher and mathematician Leibnitz claiming the credit. Yet, almost two thousand years earlier, Archimedes had invented calculus methods –still in use today- for the summation of infinite series, perhaps the single most important tool of modern mathematical science! Further progress in calculus was not made until Newton introduced his “fluxions” and Leibnitz his powerful shorthand, but the basic ideas and approaches had been put forth by Archimedes.

For how important the survival and reading of this rare manuscript is we only need to remember that the great majority of all the writings of the ancients have been lost. It is breath-taking to imagine how much richer our world would be now had not so many losses occurred! There have been unintended losses as well as outright acts of vandalism responsible for this sad state of affairs. A part of the famous Library of Alexandria burned down during the siege of the city by Augustus. The Library suffered greater losses in the fourth and fifth centuries when Christians pursued the destruction of everything pagan. Barbarian sackings of the great centers of learning did most of the damage, with the burning and looting of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 being the worst.

The Western Roman Empire (and Church) lost interest in classical Greek, and even Saint Augustine himself was reading the texts mostly through translations. Luckily Orthodox Church Fathers, including Saints Basil, Gregory of Nanziazus, and Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa, read, valued (selectively), and collected those works. And so they established the Byzantine tradition of copying, collecting and preserving as many of the books of the ancients that had not been destroyed. This is a most significant cultural contribution by the Byzantines to the modern world. Patriarch Photius and also Eustathius, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, both highly cultured men that knew and loved the works of the ancients, stand at the head of a very large number of eponymous scholars and teachers (Arethas, Chrysoloras, Planudes) as well as anonymous scribes and scholars –mostly monks in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Athos, Patmos- who read, commented on, copied, distributed, and preserved the writings of the ancients. And then there were the countless visitors or immigrants to the West during the waning years of the Byzantine Empire, who brought their books to Italy, gave lessons in Greek, established schools and libraries, and thereby helped bring about the Renaissance. The brilliant and learned Bessarion, who participated in the Council of Florence that sought to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, brought along his rich library and stayed on in Italy and became Cardinal (and on several occasions came close to being elected Pope). Bessarion’s books became the foundation of the famous Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. We owe great gratitude to the men –and some women- who preserved and transmitted to us the works of Homer, Euripides, Aristotle, and Sappho. Too, we owe gratitude to the Arab scholars who read, translated, and preserved many of those works, especially scientific and medical texts.

The significance of being able to decipher and read such rare documents is underscored by the fact that they are in extremely poor condition. Palimpsests (from the Greek pali=again, and psew= to rub) present special challenges, since they have been erased, sometimes almost totally, and written over. This palimpsest was prepared in the tenth century as a collection of some of the works of Archimedes, and then in the thirteenth century it was erased and written over as a prayer book. It resided in the monastery of Saint Savas in the Holy Land, and after an incredible journey, it was auctioned off in London in 1998. At that time the Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, sought to acquire the manuscript for Greece. However the highest bid (two million dollars) was made by an anonymous collector who sent it to the Walters Museum in Baltimore for conservation and deciphering.

Given the poor condition of the manuscript, yet remembering its great value, an international team of experts has been funded by the anonymous successful bidder to extract the invaluable contents and make them available to all scholars. The book recounts the fascinating odyssey of the manuscript, but also the assiduous and imaginative efforts of museum conservationists, physical scientists, mathematicians, and classical scholars whose collective efforts are making the reading of the manuscript possible. Most remarkable must be considered the results of the sophisticated scientific tools used –multi-spectral imaging, x-ray fluorescence, synchrotron radiation- for they truly resurrected a great Greek treasure that had been lost and greatly impaired.

The NY Times, BBC, and Public Broadcasting System (through its authoritative NOVA series) have previously brought attention to this work, but the book brings the whole story together. How much richer (indeed!) would we be today, if more such Greek treasures were available to us. Perhaps more codices are waiting to be discovered in Greek monasteries or by Arabic-reading scholars.