2,218 years later, another "Eureka!" moment


You probably know the Greek mathematician Archimedes as the guy who figured out how buoyancy worked, leapt from his bath yelling "Eureka!," and ran through the streets of Syracuse as naked as Will Ferrell in, oh, any of his movies. But don't judge him based on his exhibitionism; some mathematicians put his work on a level with Isaac Newton's. Though many of Archimedes' manuscripts were lost when the library at Alexandria went up in flames (twice), a few survive, including one that until now has been undecipherable. But:

Over the past week, researchers at Stanford University's Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park have been using X-rays to decipher a fragile 10th century manuscript that contains the only copies of some of Archimedes' most important works. ... The 174-page manuscript, known as the Archimedes Palimpsest, contains the only copies of treatises on flotation, gravity and mathematics. ... Three centuries later, a monk scrubbed off the Archimedes text and used the parchment to write prayers at a time when the Greek mathematician's work was less appreciated.

The great mathematician was a Rodney Dangerfield figure in his own time, as well -- it's said that he was approached during the Second Punic War in 212 BCE by an enemy soldier who didn't recognize him. Rather than take the "don't you know who I am?!" approach (he was under the protection of the Roman general Marcellus), Archimedes was so engrossed with the diagram he was sketching in the sand that he simply muttered: "Μη μου τους κύκλους τάραττε," or "don't disturb my circles." Oops. For all his wisdom, Archimedes hadn't figured out that occasionally the sword is mightier than the pen; the soldier killed him.