Archimedes' Secrets Revealed by Atom Smasher

Davide Castelvecchi
for National Geographic News
August 3, 2006

Lost works by the ancient scholar Archimedes have been recovered from a much battered medieval manuscript using technology from atom smashers and NASA satellites.

Physicists scanning a book known as the Archimedes Palimpsest today unveiled a new page from the mathematician's On Floating Bodies. Previously, the work was known only from an incomplete Latin translation.

The subject of On Floating Bodies is Archimedes' principle. It says that bodies in a fluid are pushed upward by buoyancy, a force equal to the weight of the fluid they displace.

The discovery of the buoyancy principle is one of the most famous tales of science history.

Archimedes supposedly came up with the principle while taking a bath. Elated, he jumped out and ran naked down the street shouting "Eureka!"—Greek for "I've found it."

The scholar, who lived in Syracuse, Sicily, from 287 B.C. to 212 B.C., also created the Archimedes Screw. The hollow spiral screw designed to move water uphill is still used in some developing countries for irrigation.

New images of pages from Archimedes' Method of Mechanical Theorems were also released by the research team. The treatise outlines a method for computing areas and volumes that was later redeveloped by Isaac Newton.

(Related story: "Europe's Oldest 'Book' Read With High-Tech Imaging" [June 6, 2006].)

Eureka Moment

In March researchers led by Uwe Bergmann, a physicist at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, used a technique called x-ray fluorescence to scan the book.

Minute traces of iron were mapped, revealing the presence of lost or faded ink—and thus of text that is almost invisible to the naked eye.

The team employed energetic x-ray beams produced by a ring-shaped, baseball-field-size particle accelerator—a machine originally invented for breaking apart subatomic particles.

Continued on Next Page >>


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