A moving story, a bouncing baby, a happy ending. Off-Ramp for March 22, 2014

Eureka! Huntington opens Archimedes exhibit with old text and new puzzle

Domenico Fetti

Archimedes of Syracuse, when he wasn't running around naked shouting "Eureka!"

“Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes” is at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens' MaryLou and George Boone Gallery through June 21. 

He’s the man who ran naked through the streets yelling “Eureka,” who died at 75 defending his Sicilian homeland, the greatest thinker of ancient times. And now Archimedes, just 2,200 years old, is at the Huntington, with a flaunt of ancient wisdom and a mind-bending new puzzle.

We know the stories, but we don’t really know the man. Was Archimedes of Syracuse married? Did he have children? Was he a member of the local royalty? Did he really have a beard? About half of his work is lost in time, and so is his biography.   

The most complete surviving collection of his work long lay hidden in the prayerbook of a medieval Greek monk, who tried to erase all of Archimedes’ works so he could write devotions on the same pages.

(The Archimedes Palimpsest photographed by John Dean. © owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, Creative Commons)

But the original — termed the Palimpsest — peeped through. After many adventures, the script came into the hands of a team of 80 scientists and scholars. With the results we see at the Huntington.

Scholars Reviel Netz and William Noel, in their book on the palimpsest, say Archimedes was the most important scientist who ever lived, because we are still building on his foundations in the 21st Century. Netz and Noel credit him with two basic, vital ideas — first, infinity and all that implies. The second is his concept that mathematics could be applied to the real world. This makes Archimedes the patron saint of all modern physics and engineering. As well as applied mathematics itself. Including calculus.

The show gives a detailed and fascinating view of the years-long restoration process, including some wild-hair scientific techniques that seem to have come right out of Dr. Who — like using a Stanford University cyclotron to peep under some bogus medieval illustrations. Other complex forms of radiation were used to light up the washed-away main texts.

(Archimedes Palimpsest, showing text and diagram of “Floating Bodies.” © owner of Archimedes Palimpsest, Creative Commons)

One ultimate result will be the first accurate English translation of Archimedes’ works. But beyond that, the palimpsest, in its new version, discloses two of his treatises never previously understood. First, there is “The Method,” in which Archimedes applies the laws of physical balance to geometry, ultimately in relation to the infinite. Scholars find in the Method the roots of the modern calculus.

The second new finding may not be as important, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a simple looking puzzle, like one you might pick up at a novelty store: a square containing 14 pieces in six colors, mostly triangles, with a few irregular polygons. Now here’s the deal: You take apart the pieces and try to fit them together in the same square — in a different pattern. Suddenly, it’s time for dinner.

It’s the baffling little joke from Archimedes to the ages. He called it his “Stomachion.” That means bellyache. The nerd word for its science is “combinatorics.” And it is key to modern computer tech. For a reasonable price, you can buy a stomachion at the Huntington Gift Shop. And bust your own gut trying to solve it. There are 17,152 possible solutions.

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