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Friends of Skillman Library will host “Eureka! The Archimedes Palimpsest,” an illustrated talk by William Noel, curator of manuscripts and rare books at Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, about the remarkable discovery and recovery of the earliest existing Archimedes text. The lecture will be held 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights room 104.

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped to remove earlier text, then overwritten with a new text. Often the earlier text is not completely removed in this process and can still be read beneath the later text. In this case, a 13th century Greek prayer book overlays the 10th century script of the treatises. Over time the pages have been severely damaged, and without the use of computer technology, they would be unreadable.

The book, which is in the care of Walters Art Museum, contains the earliest known surviving text of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes’ previously unknown treatise on The Method of Mechanical Theorems. This palimpsest reveals that modern mathematicians were not the first to work with infinitely large sets in mathematical proofs. Additionally, it is the only source in the original Greek for the treatise On Floating Bodies, in which Archimedes explores the physics of floatation and explains the formal proof for the principle of specific gravity.

“One of the most interesting aspects of the study of the Archimedes palimpsest is its interdisciplinary nature,” says Diane Windham Shaw,Friends secretary, special collections librarian, and college archivist. “So many fields come together–mathematics, philosophy, religion, art history, science, conservation, and computer technology. Each epoch has played its part in the story–the scholarship of antiquity, the transmission of texts in the Middle Ages, and the digital revolution of today. I am especially pleased that students from several classes, including two sections of the history of mathematics, will be able to hear Dr. Noel, who is a most engaging and witty speaker.”

The Archimedes palimpsest sold at auction in 1998 to a private collector, who allowed Walters Art Museum to exhibit and scan the volume. The present effort to more fully recover the Archimedes texts is directed by Noel and funded by the anonymous owner of the book. Noel also serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University.

The Walters Art Museum is internationally renowned for its collection, amassed substantially by William and Henry Walters. The collection presents an eclectic array of world art from pre-dynastic Egypt to 20th-century Europe, and counts among its many treasures Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi, medieval ivories and Old Master paintings, and Art Deco jewelry and 19th-century masterpieces.

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