Digitally enhanced photo of manuscript "On Floating Bodies" showing written-over material.

Archimedes Comes to America

One of the major science historical discoveries of this century, a 1000-year-old palimpsest containing copies of seven treatises by Archimedes, will go on public display for the first time this Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Included is a copy of Archimedes's "On Floating Bodies," which has never been publicly available in the original Greek. "It's like being able to read Shakespeare in English rather than in French," says Walters curator William Noel.

Archimedes, a Renaissance man 1600 years before the Renaissance, was a resourceful mathematician and engineer who discovered the famous law that a floating body will displace its own weight in water--the find that spawned the apocryphal story of his running down the streets yelling "Eureka." His influence on all of science was "immense," says science historian Reviel Netz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Some of Archimedes's manuscripts were copied onto goatskin by scribes in Constantinople in the 10th century A.D. But the writing was in large part rubbed out two centuries later by a Greek Orthodox monk in parchment-short Constantinople to transcribe religious rites (palimpsest means "scraped over" in Greek). In 1906, the book was found in an Istanbul library by Danish classicist Johan Ludwig Heiberg, who discerned Archimedes's texts beneath the religious writings. Bought by a French family in the 1920s, it languished in obscurity until it was offered at auction at Christie's last October, where it was purchased for $2 million by an anonymous bidder. Noel will reveal only that the lender is "not Bill Gates."

The Walters will have it on show until 5 September, but plans to study and conserve the work afterward. Noel says that effort, to be led by Netz and Oxford University Greek manuscript expert Nigel Wilson, will involve taking the book apart to photograph the entire text, some of which is hidden under the binding. Ultrahigh-resolution photography with light of various wavelengths may reveal new details; computer-enhanced imaging will bring out the Archimedes text while soft-pedaling the overlying writing. Meanwhile conservationists will be figuring out how to preserve the moldy and fire-scorched goatskin pages.

--CONSTANCE HOLDEN

Posted in Scientific Community