How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist
Email this review


The unraveling of a scientific treasure hidden in the pages of a decaying palimpsest.

Noel, curator of documents at the Walters Art Institute in Baltimore, obtained custody of a medieval prayer book that had been copied onto parchment that contained the erased remnants of several unique texts by the greatest of Greek scientists, Archimedes. The owner, “Mr. B,” not only gave the Walters the right to display it, but the task of learning what mathematical treasures some medieval scribe had written over. To help in that task, he enlisted the aid of Netz, a leading expert on ancient mathematics. Thus began the process of recovering Archimedes’ text, letter by letter, from the palimpsest. The difficulty of that task was multiplied by the fragility of the parchment, as well as clumsy efforts by previous owners to preserve it or to increase its value by inserting forged illustrations. Noel called in experts in high-tech imaging to apply sensitive but non-destructive methods. After a number of false starts, they began to uncover text that Noel could read—and he rapidly discovered that Archimedes had far more sophisticated mathematical ideas than previously thought, including a use of infinities that wouldn’t reappear until the invention of calculus. Even more surprising was a previously enigmatic treatise, the Stomatichon, which turned out to deal with the science of combinations—a topic historians thought had been unexplored before the 17th century. Netz and Noel alternate chapters, each shedding light on his own area of expertise and giving a fuller picture of both ancient science and modern technology. In the end, the reader is likely to agree with Netz that Archimedes was among the greatest scientists of all time.

Stimulating exploration of several areas of science.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-306-81580-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Da Capo
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2007