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The Archimedes Codex unpeeled by modern technological sleuthing

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The Archimedes texts were copied in the 10th century by an unknown scribe in Constantinople, then a major center of the Christian world eventually to become a center of the Islamic world. Three centuries later, another scribe washed, scraped, and otherwise tried to remove the text from the book's parchment. This person undid the book, rebound it in the opposite direction, then, on the imperfectly cleared pages, wrote his Christian prayers in Greek over the original text, which was also in Greek, and still discernible in a faint rust-colored thread running beneath. This procedure was common in medieval times: Parchment was scarce. Thus, the Archimedes Codex became a palimpsest, a twice-used book.

The findings gleaned from it have raised Archimedes's status as a thinker higher than anyone might have expected. Noel describes him as "the most important scientist who ever lived."

Most significant among the discoveries was the knowledge that "Archimedes was the first to calculate with actual infinity in the mathematics of the West." That is to say, he was operating at an intellectual level that didn't become common in the mathematical world until the 17th century, nearly 2,000 years after his time. The Archimedean texts, Noel writes, make the mathematics of Leonardo da Vinci "look like child's play."

"The method," the thesis of premier importance, writes Noel, "survives in the Palimpsest alone ... the Palimpsest is the only physical object in the universe to bear witness to this achievement of Archimedes."

Also found in the palimpsest, and there only, was an Archimedes treatise about an ancient game involving 14 flat pieces of various shapes that fit into a square in an uncountable number of combinations. This game, the Stomachion, possibly invented by Archimedes, reveals the beginnings of the science of combinatorics, which eventually evolved into the science of probability. Noel also regards the treatise on the Stomachion as "a major discovery."

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