Eureka is Greek for “I have found it” (the California State motto). Archimedes was a 3rd century BC mathematician who was said to have run through the streets naked from his bath after he came up with the solution to a sticky problem the king of the small Greek state of Syracuse in Sicily presented him with. It seemed that the king was worried that his gold crown had been cut with silver and there was no way of finding out without melting the crown down. Archimedes came up with the idea that he could submerge the crown in water and by calculating the displacement discrepancies between the metals, he could come up with the answer. He measured the crown and found it had been adulterated. This story is almost certainly not true except for the fact that Archimedes did discover the physical laws of displacement and the three-dimensional mathematics of nature where previously we had only Euclid’s two-dimensional geometry. Archimedes didn’t have benefit of zero or negative numbers for his calculations and indeed the Greek numbering system was only slightly better for calculation than Roman numerals so he wrote his math as prose problems with diagrams. This most revered mathematician of the ancient world dealt with concepts of infinity, calculated pi to 4 places and told us that given a place to stand “I can move the world.”

Archimedes wrote of his discovery in hundreds perhaps thousands of letters and published a few books. Yes, 2300 years ago they did have books, all be it handwritten but they looked like modern bound books. The pages were of parchment (treated mammal skin) and there were few pages but the value when transmitting ideas to other places in space and time is incalculable.

But then in the Middle Ages teaching and learning fell away and most everything written that had been accumulated for nearly 2,000 years disappeared. Books were burned for heat, fed to goats or erased and scavenged for the paper or parchment. By the 10th Century it was hard to find the great works of old and by the 14th perhaps 1% was left. But it was in the 10th Century that one of the rare pockets of learning flourished. This was in the reformulated Easter Roman Empire called Byzantium. Headquartered in Constantinople (now Istanbul) there was for centuries in the Dark Ages near universal education and this was conducted in Greek. In schools they used the ancient Greek and even Roman texts to practice grammar and even penmanship. There was a strange conflict between the love of the Greek masters and the Christian doctrine holding sway at the time. In fact most of what we have of Archimedes was eventually funneled through one man, a Byzantine called Leo the Mathematician (about a thousand years ago). But for this fellow who gathered all he could of the Archimedean texts we might have had to discover the laws all over again.

In time all of Archimedes books in Greek were lost and what comes down to us are less than precise reiterations histories if his work further blurred by Latin translations. But then from a shrouded past surfaced a certain Christian eucharist in Istanbul in 1906. It was a 13th Century palimpsest of a much earlier work. A palimpsest is a book that has been washed or scraped of ink and written over for another purpose. But when the Christian words were washed away there remained a faint online of a book determined to be the work of Archimedes. It was a 10th century compellation of several lost Archimedean texts and his greatest work, On Floating Bodies. Even this work was at least a 4th generation copy but notably it was in Greek. archimedespalimpsest.org

A British historian tried to borrow the book from Istanbul in 1907 but they wouldn’t let it out of the country so he went there and photographed much of the book. Shorty thereafter The Ottoman’s morphed into the Turks and the book was lost.

Then in the late 1990’s the remaining pages (very badly damaged by mold in the 20th century) showed up for auction in New York. A legal battle raged with Turkey claiming it and a French family trying to sell it. In the end the family prevailed and an unnamed billionaire bought it for a mere two million. He then sent the pages to various labs around the world including SLAC here at Stanford to tease out every bit of this tiny thread of history.

The squandering of our historic riches in the Middle Ages is shocking, no? But I wonder if the next age will look back on our wonton ways and feel that the people of this time were far more irresponsible than feeding Euripides to farm animals with our desecration of the jungles and driving in cars that get 18mpg. We can well ask ourselves which is the greater crime.