Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Archimedes Codex: Neumann Prize Winner and the story of Archimedes’ lost manuscripts

by Kathryn Hadley

Last Saturday, September 19th, at the autumn meeting of the British Society for the History of Mathematics (BSHM), The Archimedes Codex by Reviel Netz and William Noel was awarded the Neumann Prize for the best book in the history of mathematics aimed a broad audience. Reviel Netz is Professor of Classics at Stanford University, California, and Dr William Noel is the curator of manuscripts and rare books at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

The prize was awarded for the first time this year and will henceforth be bestowed every two years. The prize is named after Dr Peter Neumann, Emeritus Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford, and a former president of the BSHM. He was awarded the OBE in 2008 for his services to education.

The Archimedes Codex is a biography of one of the ancient world’s greatest mathematicians Archimedes of Syracuse (c.287 BC – c.212 BC) and tells the story of the rediscovery of a 10th-century copy of some of his writings and drawings, which were found hidden beneath a 13th-century prayer book.

The only historic sources about Archimedes are three manuscripts, two of which have disappeared. The third is the Archimedes Palimpsest. The word palimpsest comes from the Greek palimpsestos meaning ‘scraped again’ and is a manuscript from which the text has been erased and the parchment re-used. In the case of the Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript containing the mathematician’s work was erased and re-used as a Byzantine prayer book written in Greek and completed in 1229. It contains seven treatises by Archimedes, including The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Stomachion, which allegedly exist nowhere else in the world.

In October 1998, the manuscript was sold at auction to a private collector who deposited it at The Walters Art Museum. The Archimedes Codex chronicles the project led by William Noel to recover and decipher the erased text and investigates why the text is so important. The Walters Art Museum also created a digital version of the text, which is available on the Archimedes Palimpsest project website.

Professor Martin Campbell-Kelly from the University of Warwick was the chair of the judging panel. He said that:
‘although the panel was faced with a strong shortlist of books The Archimedes
Codex, with its readable combination of history and modern scientific sleuthing,
emerged as a clear winner’.

The British Society for the History of Mathematics was founded in 1971 to promote and encourage research in the history of mathematics and its use at all levels of mathematics education. The annual joint BSHM / Gresham College lecture will be held at Gresham College on November 2nd. Professor Jeremy Gray from the University of Warwick will give a talk entitled ‘Mathematics, motion and truth: the Earth goes round the Sun’ in which he will address the debates surrounding the reality of the Earth’s motion around the Sun from the early 17th century to the time of Poincare.

For further information on the making and the history of the palimpsest and on the project itself visit the Archimedes palimpsest website

Archimedes was one of the first mathematicians to approximate the value of π (pi). The mathematics teacher William Jones was the first, however, to use a symbol to represent the concept of pi. In William Jones and his Circle: The Man who invented Pi Patricia Rothman discusses Jones’s significance among his contemporaries and the unique archive that forms his legacy.

For further information on the history of science, visit our History of Science focus page. For further information on ancient Greece, visit our Ancient History focus page.

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