Thursday, February 05, 2009

Book Review: "The Archimedes Codex"

No, The Archimedes Codex is not - blessedly - one of the growing number of DaVinci Code clone-novels, but rather a really intriguing look into the inner workings of the Archimedes Palimpsest project, an effort (begun more than 10 years ago now) to recover and understand the works contained in what surely must now be the most famous palimpsest in existence.

Co-written (in alternating chapters) by project manager William Noel (a curator at the Walters Museum in Baltimore) and Reviel Netz (a Stanford professor of classics and philosophy), the book recounts the troubled past and revealing present of the manuscript codex, offering up a good book history story as well as interesting looks and explanations of how the discoveries being made with the use of the codex are changing our understanding of ancient math and science.

It is not often that such a revealing portrait of the process behind a major research project like this are made public in this way, which makes this book all the more interesting. I really enjoyed learning how very decisions came to be taken as various conservation and imaging processes were carried out on the book so that it could give up its secrets. And, dense as they were, Netz' chapters on Archimedean mathematics were written with sufficient clarity that even I managed to understand them.

The entire project, which has resulted in any number of conventional-wisdom-changing discoveries, has fascinated me for quite a while; my first post on it was way back in August 2006, just a few weeks after I started blogging here. I've added several more since, as new findings have been released. Most recently, I noted the release of the full dataset, which will (and presumably already has) allowed other scholars to find still more secrets of the palimpsest.

Enjoyable and fun to read - the enthusiasm Noel and Netz exude is contagious, even through the printed page.