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.

"The beam is 10,000 times more intense than a conventional x-ray tube," such as the kind used at hospitals, Bergmann said.

The intensity allows the researchers to scan a page in about 12 hours—about 300 times faster than using an x-ray tube would allow.

The beam touches each spot for less than three milliseconds, keeping radiation exposure far below levels that could damage the parchment, Bergmann says.

Scientists had already reconstructed most of the text from the manuscript using multispectral imaging. This technique—developed for NASA satellite surveys such as Landsat program—overlays images taken at different wavelengths of light, from infrared to visible to ultraviolet.

But up to 20 percent of the text remained inaccessible until Bergmann and his colleague Robert Morton proposed using x-ray fluorescence.

Lost and Found

Like most other remaining texts of antiquity, the works of Archimedes survive only thanks to scribes who kept copying them on parchment throughout the Middle Ages.

But parchment was often recycled by "palimpsesting," a blunt washing procedure that left little, if any, of the old text.

In 1906 Danish classicist Johan Ludvig Heiberg discovered a 13th-century prayer book in a library in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). That book became known as the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Barely readable under the prayers was an older text—a tenth-century copy of ancient Greek texts. Heiberg recognized, painstakingly transcribed, and translated parts of seven works by Archimedes, two of which would have otherwise been lost.

Later, the Palimpsest disappeared, presumably stolen during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Badly damaged by mold and fire, it resurfaced at a New York auction in 1998.

Fake medieval paintings now completely covered four of its pages.

An anonymous collector bought it for two million U.S. dollars, entrusting it to the care of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The collector has since funded the book's restoration and analysis.

Nigel Wilson, a historian at the University of Oxford in England, says the same technologies used on the Archimedes Palimpsest could shed new light on a number of other palimpsests conserved in libraries around the world.

"There are going to be plenty," Wilson said. A text recently discovered in the Vatican Library, for example, contains previously unknown fragments by the ancient Greek playwright Menander.

It may be some time before historians are able to assess the full importance of the new pages.

Meanwhile, Bergmann's team is performing a third round of imaging, which will end August 7. Slated for scanning are the four painted-over pages.

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