Decoding Archimedes text

In Brief



Experts at the Walters Art Museum have taken the Archimedes Palimpsest to Stanford University in California in an effort to decipher some of the prized document's detail with a particle accelerator. A Webcast is planned for 7 p.m. today to announce the latest findings.

Researchers at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory are using X-ray fluorescence to decode the ancient text. The process takes advantage of iron in the ink used by the ancient scribe who copied Archimedes' work onto parchment.

When the X-rays formed by the synchrotron hit the iron, traces of the iron glow so that they can be translated by a detector and projected on a computer screen.

Archimedes was born in 287 B.C. and gained fame for discoveries in geometry, physics and mechanics. He may be best known for crying "Eureka!" at the point of one of his most famous discoveries: He had settled into his bathtub and formulated the law of fluid displacement while watching the water rise around him.

His texts were repeatedly transcribed over the centuries, and the Walters palimpsest (one work covered by another) was a laborious effort by an anonymous scribe working on parchment made of goatskin in the 10th century. With parchment rare and Archimedes' work in less demand as the years went by, Christian monks washed or scraped off the old text a few centuries later and rebound the work into a prayer book.

The work resurfaced in 1998, was purchased at auction by an anonymous buyer and entrusted to the Walters.

Experts have spent six years there using ultraviolet and optical light, as well as digital imaging techniques, to uncover much of the palimpsest's original writings. One of the most serious problems in decoding the text has been seeing the original ink on four pages painted over with Byzantine religious images by forgers trying to increase the text's value.

The analysis at Stanford is scheduled to continue until Monday, when the accelerator will be shut down for repairs.

Information about the palimpsest and tonight's Webcast are at archimedespalimpsest. org.

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