This weekend is your last chance to admire a $2 million treasure at the Huntington Library exhibit “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes” before it returns to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The item, Archimedes Palimpsest, was bought by an anonymous high-tech industry billionaire at a Christie’s Auction House in 1998. The story of its discovery and its mysterious journey to Paris and finally the United States combined with the technology used to excavate the manuscript make this book’s history appealing to mystery fans and geeks alike.

The Archimedes was very much a man ahead of his times. If he was more famous outside of math circles, perhaps he’d be the one portrayed as an alien from outer space who decided to play human. Little is actually known about this ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer. He explained the principle of the lever and his physics are the foundations for hydrostatics (the studies of fluids at rest) and statics (the studies of loads). Archimedes discovered mathematical law of the buoyancy force to the volume and density of the displaced fluid. Statics looks at force and torque on physical systems in static equilibrium. Think about a center of mass that moves at a constant velocity.

A Roman soldier killed the 75-year-old Archimedes in c. 212 BC during the Second Punic War although the General Marcus Claudius Marcellus had ordered that he be spared. The general had led a two-year siege but considered Archimedes a scientist who might prove useful.

While paper, parchment and books are commonplace now, they were considered precious during ancient times. When an anonymous scribe copied down the works of Achimedes in 950 AD on parchment, Archimedes was long dead and everyone he had known was dead. Parchment was so precious that manuscript pages were scraped and washed, erasing the original text enough that the pages could be then re-used. That is what a palimpsest is–paper or parchment scraped and reused. Parchment is made from animal hide  and thus more likely to survive the scraping, re-writing and passing of time, but not without damage.

The original Archimedes codex was taken apart, it was scraped and washed and then with parchment leaves from other manuscripts, the leaves were folded in half and bound and became a liturgical book. A Biblical German scholar saw the palimpsest in Constantinople and intrigued by the Greek writing visible, brought a page back in the 1840s, but another scholar studied the palimpsest in Constantinople in 1906 and realized the text was from Archimedes. He produced transcriptions from photographs.

Somehow the palimpsest had traveled from Constantinople to Paris in the 1920s. At one point, illustrations were painted on the manuscript, perhaps in an effort to make it more marketable. There was a claim that the palimpsest had been in a monastery near Jerusalem in 1625 but was stolen in the 1920s. The case brought against the Christie’s auction house went to court in New York yet  the Jerusalem claim doesn’t explain the presence of the manuscript in Constantinople.  Christie’s won the case and promptly auctioned off the Archimedes Palimpsest for $2 million to an anonymous buyer who was determined that this rare item be seen and studies instead of closeted away.

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore became the home of the palimpsest where it was studied and conserved. If the codes and sequences we type into computers aren’t easily erased, neither are the writings of long ago on parchment. Using advanced technologies of light–ultraviolet, x-ray and infrared wavelengths, the underlying text was excavated without damaging the already mold damaged manuscript. Technology was able to look beneath the four Byzantine-style religious paintings, forged during desperate times in Europe (post 1938). The X-rays at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park, California deciphered the writing beneath the illustrations in 2005.

The Archimedes Palimpsest contains:

  • “On the Equilibrium of Planes”
  • “Spiral Lines”
  • Measurement of a Circle”
  • “On the Sphere and Cylinder”
  • “On Floating Bodies”
  • “The Method of Mechanical Theorems”
  • “Stomachion”

The Palimpsest provides the only know Greek copy of “On Floating Bodies” and the only known copy of “The Method of Mechanical Theorems.” It also contains the speeches of a 4th century BC politician and other works.

If you think your kids might be bored, the exhibit includes a stomachion that they can try out and you can buy one for yourself to work out at home. The stomachion is a 14-piece puzzled that forms a square. By re-arranging the forms you can create different objects as well as different ways to reform the larger square. You can recombine 14 pieces of a geometric puzzle and still make a perfect square using 17,152 combinations.

You might not have time to make all of those configurations this weekend, but do find time to see this exhibit at the Huntington or it will be an opportunity lost.