The cheery news of the moment, if you’re a math historian or just have a broad streak of geek in your makeup, is that a palimpsest text of a treatise by Archimedes, lately recovered via clever image reconstruction techniques, has turned out to be a startlingly advanced piece of work:
Twenty-two hundred years ago, the great Greek mathematician Archimedes wrote a treatise called the Stomachion. Unlike his other writings, it soon fell into obscurity. Little of it survived, and no one knew what to make of it.That’s from the New York Times. It’s an interesting story, and comes with a picture of the recovered text under its cross-written Greek prayerbook text, plus a couple of nifty diagrams showing what Archimedes was on about. Check it out. What really caught my attention, though, was a one-paragraph bit on the second page:
But now a historian of mathematics at Stanford, sifting through ancient parchment overwritten by monks and nearly ruined by mold, appears to have solved the mystery of what the treatise was about. In the process, he has opened a surprising new window on the work of the genius best remembered (perhaps apocryphally) for his cry of “Eureka!” when he discovered a clever way to determine whether a king’s crown was pure gold.
The Stomachion, concludes the historian, Dr. Reviel Netz, was far ahead of its time: a treatise on combinatorics, a field that did not come into its own until the rise of computer science.The goal of combinatorics is to determine how many ways a given problem can be solved. And finding the number of ways that the problem posed in the Stomachion (pronounced sto-MOCK-yon) can be solved is so difficult that when Dr. Netz asked a team of four combinatorics experts to do it, it took them six weeks.
It was chance that led Dr. Netz to his first insight into the nature of the Stomachion. Last August, he says, just as he was about to start transcribing one of the manuscript pages, he got a gift in the mail, a blue cut-glass model of a Stomachion puzzle. It was made by a retired businessman from California who found Dr. Netz on the Internet as a renowned Archimedes scholar. Looking at the model, Dr. Netz realized that a diagram on the page he was transcribing was actually a rearrangement of the pieces of the Stomachion puzzle. Suddenly, he understood what Archimedes was getting at.Uh-huh. Very likely. Just at that moment, Dr. Netz happens to get an elaborate gift out of the blue, from a “retired businessman in California” whose hobby just happens to be making cut-glass models of mathematics puzzles, and who just happened to run across Dr. Netz (I steadfastly refuse to comment on that name) on the Web, and be inspired to send him the exact thing he needed to figure out that treatise.
Bloody time travelers, tampering again. Is this their idea of circumspect influence?
(Link via Patrick, who put Buffy on Pause to read me the first few paragraphs of the article. Is he good, or what?)Addendum: Virge commented:
An assistant professor historic rediscovered works combinatoric.
He (despite the monks’ cleaning)
gave the manuscript meaning
to further his fame meteoric.