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The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist Hardcover – October 23, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1998, the auction house Christie's sold a medieval prayer book for more than $2 million. The price owed to a startling discovery: the prayers had been written over the earliest surviving manuscript of Archimedes (287–212 B.C.), the ancient world's greatest mathematician. In a delightful and fast-paced archeological and scientific detective story, Netz, a Stanford classicist, and Noel, director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, make palpable the excitement this discovery evoked. After the auction, they were given access to study the palimpsest; after frustrating days of trying to read the writings beneath the prayer manuscript, Netz, Noel and a team of scientists and conservators turned to a variety of imaging techniques to reconstruct the hidden Archimedes manuscript, which turned out to be heretofore undiscovered works, Balancing Planes, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Stomachion, in which Archimedes wrote about topics ranging from gravity to infinity. The manuscript also revealed some lost speeches by Hyperides, one of the 10 canonical orators of antiquity. Netz and Noel's book chronicles the often difficult and demanding work surrounding the preservation of antiquities as they uncover one of the most exciting documents of ancient history. 16 pages of color photos. (Sept.)
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Physics Today
“[Reviel Netz is] one of the most creative historians of mathematics of our time…[Will Noel] narrates with some verve his own story in learning about the palimpsest…Much of The Archimedes Codex is delightful. The story of the palimpsest is exciting, and few can explain difficult issues in Greek mathematics with the simplicity and elegance that Netz achieves…A fun read.”

Mathematics and Computer Education
“[A] crystal clear and captivating narrative. It is a book that is difficult to put down…An absolutely wonderful book…It will inspire future geometers, physicists, computer scientists, curators, and classicists.”

Science Books & Films, 8/08
“The fascinating story of how the secrets of this work have been unlocked.”

Mathematics Teacher, 11/08
“Accessible to a general audience…A valuable resource for instructors teaching a history of mathematics course.”

Toronto Globe and Mail, 1/31/09
“[An] archeological detective story…Fascinating.”, 2/10/09
“A very interesting book, quite entertaining, sometimes funny, always engaging…A great treat for mystery lovers, classicists, mathematicians, and history buffs.”

American Author’s Association
“[A] wonderful book…This is not just a math book or a science book or a history book—it is a book of mysteries and so much more…A most fascinating tale… Entertaining, yet educational and inspiring…This book made math exciting!”

Isis, 5/6/09
“Offers fascinating insight into modern research on ancient mathematical texts.”


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; 1st Da Capo Press Ed edition (October 23, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030681580X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306815805
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #261,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Observer on January 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Reviel Netz and William Noel have given us a well written, immensely informative and hugely entertaining glimpse into the world of Archimedes, mathematical thinking, antiquarian book collecting, manuscript conservation and, above all, puzzle solving. Puzzle solving that is dependent on the mind-boggling expertise of linguists, classicists, mathematicians, chemists, computer scientists and imaging experts.

Mr. B, the anonymous but known purchaser of what remains of Codex C and the underwriter of the conservation and interpretative work, clearly needs to be recognized for his huge and essential financial contribution.
Does anyone know who Mr. B is?

The alternating chapters on the history and restoration of the manuscript and its mathematical content works wonderfully. Reviel Netz does a great job explaining the geometry and the significance of Archimedes' thought experiments.

The one minor issue I have is the tendency for overstatement. Netz may well be right that nobody before Archimedes (and even Newton) had the same type of thoughts - but the reality is that given the destruction of so many early manuscripts, we simply do not know. I also am less sure than Prof. Netz that Archimedes, the builder of catapaults and other engineering devices and an astronomer, didn't use the physical world to ground his mathematical ideas - thereby accounting for some of his brilliant mathematical ideas. For example, it is not hard to imagine that Archimedes might have been using his geometry to create a heliocentric model - why else the deep interest in parabolas? But then Prof. Netz like all good educators has motivated me to find other expositions of Archimedes and his science.

Regardless, this is a wonderful book, profusely illustrated with both color photographs and diagrams. The authors are also very gracious in acknowledging the work of literally dozens of experts. It will undoubtely inspire a host of fiction writers.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Eleftherios Chrysopoulos on June 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book is truly remarkable although can be at times tiring. It tells the story of the palimpsest which was sold at an auction in 1998. The author takes us on a journey that spans through the early European history up to the Byzantine era and even the Second World War.

Although it encompasses the theories that have so far been discovered in the codex originally written by Archimedes himself in a letter, and thus a fair bit of Mathematics is involved, it can be a very enjoyable experience. You can ignore the parts in which the author explains the technology behind the imaging systems they used to uncover the original texts or the logistics of the processes involved, but then you would have missed a part of the whole adventure.

This book is about unraveling history and discovering its secrets. What a journey indeed !
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Frank H. Sanders on February 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Archimedes Codex is a three-in-one book: First, it tells the fascinating story of how a famous but apparently lost text of Archimedes was found in the late 20th century and is being gradually recovered in a readable form. Second, it reveals some of the functioning of one the most brilliant mathematical and engineering brains in history. And finally, it indicates, in the same vein as the recently re-examined Antikythera machine, the enormity of the quantity of important information from antiquity that has been lost, especially in the fields of science, engineering and mathematics. This book, clearly written and well-illustrated, would be a good choice for anyone who is interested in either classical scholarship, the history of mathematics, or historical mysteries and their solutions.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Linda G. Camp on February 20, 2009
Format: Paperback
Raiders of the Lost Ark has NOTHING on The Archimedes Codex! Never have I been caught up in such revealing discovery and compelling adventure in a book of such historical and scientific accuracy as The Archimedes Codex. With the fascination of a spellbinding novel and the accuracy of a text, this book follows the exciting rediscovery of the work of one of the world's greatest mathematicians and geniuses of all time, Archimedes of Syracuse. It's a tale of great importance that follows a mysterious book through its auction at Christie's in London, England to The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for scholarly study, imaging, and conservation, all of this funded by the highest bidder (two million dollars) and owner of this captivating piece of historical significance.

Codex C, the Archimedes palimpsest, is a parchment manuscript consisting of 174 parchment folios, which, in themselves, consist of at least seven treatises by Archimedes. Although these works of Archimedes don't account for the entire palimpsest, these are of major importance.

The word "palimpsest" comes from a Greek word meaning "scraped again." This means that the original text (in this case, the text written by Archimedes) has been "scraped" and new text written over it. Original medieval manuscripts were made of "scraped" animal skin which was called "parchment." It was the practice in medieval times to re-use parchment when unused animal hide was scarce or temporarily unavailable. Such was the case with Archimedes' Codex C (and with the additional manuscripts from other authors), in the making of a Byzantine prayer book or "euchologion" by a monk or monks in the year 1229 in Jerusalem.
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