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December 14, 2003

Eureka!

Interesting article about an obscure mathematical treatise by Archimedes called the Stomachion ("In Archimedes' Puzzle, a New Eureka Moment" - Gina Colata, NYT, Science, 12/14/03). Although the main focus of the article is the discovery of the treatise's subject matter, combinatorics (whose goal is "to determine how many ways a given problem can be solved"), what's also interesting is the history of the manuscript:

In the 13th century...Christian monks, needing vellum for a prayer book, ripped the manuscript apart, washed it, folded its pages in half and covered it with religious text. After centuries of use, the prayer book known as a palimpsest, because it contains text that is written over ended up in a monastery in Constantinople.

Johan Ludvig Heiberg, a Danish scholar, found it in 1906, in the library of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Istanbul. He noticed faint tracings of mathematics under the prayers. Using a magnifying glass, he transcribed what he could and photographed about two-thirds of the pages. Then the document disappeared, lost along with other precious manuscripts in the strife between the Greeks and the Turks.

It reappeared in the 1970's, in the hands of a French family that had bought it in Istanbul in the early 20's and held it for five decades before trying to sell it. They had trouble finding a buyer, however, in part because there was some question of whether they legally owned it. But also, the manuscript looked terrible. It had been ravaged by mold in the years the family kept it, and it was ragged and ugly.

In 1998, an anonymous billionaire bought it for $2 million and lent it to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where it still resides.

Yours, &c., LC | 12:15 PM | Librariana | TrackBack (0)

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