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Friday, February 15, 2008

Archimedes Palimpsest Project today and tomorrow at UNM

An interesting exploration of history, science and the nature of 'text' is going on here at UNM today and tomorrow with the Archimedes Revealed event at Woodward Hall...

UNM's Institute for Medieval Studies Hosts Colloquium on Acclaimed Archimedes Project

Leading team members from the famous Archimedes Palimpsest Project—which has hit the headlines in news outlets across the United States and in Europe—will gather in Albuquerque Friday and Saturday, Feb. 15–16, for "Archimedes Revealed," a public colloquium hosted by the University of New Mexico Institute for Medieval Studies.

The event, which takes place in rm. 101 of Woodward Hall on UNM's main campus, will include five illustrated presentations covering the key aspects of this most remarkable project. All sessions are free and open to the public.

For a complete list of the lectures visit: Archimedes Revealed.

The colloquium will focus on the Archimedes Palimpsest, a 10th century manuscript that includes the only surviving copies of three key works by Archimedes, the greatest scientist of the ancient world. These works reveal that Archimedes was familiar with the concept of infinity—previously thought to have been unknown to the Greeks—that he anticipated the discovery of the calculus by almost 2,000 years, and that his contributions to science foreshadowed those of Galileo and Newton, the founders of modern scientific method.
So why have these texts by Archimedes remained unknown until now? A "palimpsest" is a book in which the original text has been erased from the parchment leaves and new text substituted in its place. In the 13th century, Greek-speaking monks erased the Archimedes texts from the manuscript and substituted for them a collection of monastic prayers. Early in the 20th century, the Danish scholar Johan Heiberg was able to read parts of the erased text, but he had to leave significant portions unread—including those that reveal most about Archimedes' mind and methods.

The manuscript went missing for much of the 20th century. It resurfaced in 1998, when purchased at auction by an anonymous buyer who deposited it at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore so that conservation work could be carried out on its leaves and scientists could attempt to make the text legible again.

The story of those scientists' efforts is an epic of modern technological achievement. Advanced digital imaging techniques developed at the Rochester Institute of Technology—one of the leading centers in the United States for this kind of work—recaptured significant portions of text that was previously illegible. Yet not even those techniques could penetrate the secrets of certain pages that, in an unscrupulous and misguided effort to give the book greater value, had been painted over in the mid-20th century with forged pictures in medieval Byzantine style.

Reading these pages required taking the manuscript to Stanford University, where scientists at Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center—which specializes in accelerating atomic particles to nearly the speed of light—developed a special, purpose-built scanner that submitted the pages to x-ray fluorescence that succeeded in penetrating the paint and reading faint traces of original letters beneath. As a result, about 85 percent of the original text may now be read—and progress continues to be made, with hopes of rendering the entire text legible.

The Archimedes Palimpsest Project is an epic that brings together ancient science, a medieval manuscript, and some of the brightest achievements of modern technology. It is not surprising that it has attracted huge public interest.

The project has been the subject of a PBS Nova documentary, a BBC documentary, and major articles in the Smithsonian and the Economist; it has been written up in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, in England's Daily Telegraph and Independent and in Spain's El PaĆ­s; it has been featured on NPR, on Fox News, on ABC News and on BBC News.

The New Mexico public has an extraordinary opportunity to hear leading members of the project present on key aspects. The event should appeal to a broad spectrum of the public: those interested in the ancient and medieval past just as much as those interested in the possibilities opened up by modern technology developed in some of the country's leading scientific centers.

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