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Book Review: The Archimedes Codex – How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist by Reviel Netz and William Noel

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Warning: Unless you’re interested in mathematics or history you’d be wise to stay away from this book. Not that I’m attempting to frighten you off. Quite the opposite, really, because The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist is a very interesting book, quite entertaining, sometimes funny, always engaging. It’s not an easy read, mainly because most of the story is about the provenance and history of the prayer book, as much as it’s been able to be pieced together that is, while the underlying and overarching theme is mathematics, and it’s seldom simple math.

The Archimedes Codex begins with the auction of the book at Christie’s in New York, a book that was being fought over as it went to auction, and afterwards, as well. Just as many noted pieces of artwork and archaeological treasures are being fought over on a daily basis, both in the courts and in various countries’ ruling bodies, the Codex is not exempt.

This is a Codex-centric story of ancient books and libraries in general, a general history of who sacked which city when, and who killed whom. Thrown in is a bird’s eye view of one of the most glorious and wonderful cities in the world: Stamboul, Istambul, or Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, the only city on Earth to span two continents. And because of Constantinople’s history as a city fought over by people from three continents, we’re given a fair share of Roman, Greek, and European history, as well as a dose of North African history. Think the Middle East and countries bordering the Mediterranean are bad now? Ya shoulda been there one or two thousand years ago. You think war is bad now? “While Constantine VII wrote a book on the administration of the empire in 1014AD, Basil II took 14,000 Bulgarians prisoner and blinded 99 out of every 100; the lucky one got to guide his comrades home.”

Adding to the complication, TRYREADINGASTORYTHATSENTIRELYWRITTENLIKETHISIS. All capitals, little or no punctuation, and no spaces between the words. But the thousands of man-hours that went into the transformation of this book from a medieval prayer book to a celebration of the world’s most brilliant mathematician, ever, were worth it. Now we know that Archimedes was “the discoverer of specific gravity, the value of pi, the law of the lever, and calculations for determining the volumes of spheres and cylinders as well as the center of gravity for irregular shapes.” He was the first to use combinatronics, which is the very soul of what makes computers do what they do. And in his spare time, he “developed the mathematics of actual infinity, or integral calculus, 2,000 years before Newton and Leibnitz.”

Reviel Netz is a Stanford classicist, and William Noel is director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland. Both men, in addition to their expertise with the evolution of this book, alternated writing various chapters of the book in a style that will be a great treat for mystery lovers, classicists, mathematicians, and history buffs.

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