Saturday, June 20, 2015

Book Review: The Archimedes Codex

I bought this book because I wanted to understand more about Archimedes' role in the ancient development of calculus ideas. When I got it, I was worried it would be another book I wouldn't want to wade through. I was so wrong!

The Archimedes Codex, by Reviel Netz and William Noel, is fascinating. Like much good science writing these days, The Archimedes Codex reads like a detective story. It is gripping! Netz writes chapters about Archimedes, his math, and translation issues. Noel writes chapters about the travels of the manuscript, and the attempts to use modern technology to get better images of Archimedes' writing.

In 1998 Christie's auctioned off this battered medieval manuscript which on its face was a prayer book, but also contained traces underneath of Archimedes' work, which had been scraped off. It sold for two million dollars to an anonymous bidder. William Noel, of the Walters Art Museum in Boston, followed the story and emailed the agent of the buyer. The buyer agreed to work with the museum to attempt restoration of the manuscript. Most experts expected little from the work, since the manuscript was in such bad condition. But the project, which took years, brought to light previously unknown work by Archimedes.

Archimedes had explored the idea of infinity more carefully than had ever been realized. He also did work in combinatorics, which no one had even suspected. The math is pretty easy to follow, and it's amazing. I've dogeared about a dozen pages, so I can read passages to my calculus students.

This is perfect summer reading. Enjoy!

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