Aristarchus: a bright lad

Some time in the third century BC, a fellow by the name of Aristarchus of Samos wrote a book in which he said the earth moved around the sun. The book's lost. We know about it because Archimedes quoted it with approval in a book of his own called The Sand Reckoner.
Aristarchus of Samos brought out a book in which the universe is many times greater than that now so called. His hypothesis is that the fixed stars and the sun remain unmoved, that the earth revolves about the sun in the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit, and that the sphere of the fixed stars, situated about the same center as the sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed stars as the center of the sphere bears to its surface.
That beats Copernicus by about 1,700 years.  It's when you read things like this that you realize how much was lost when the classical world collapsed.

Archimedes clearly bought into the theory. He wrote The Sand Reckoner to work out how many grains of sand it would take to fill up the universe, assuming Aristarchus was right. The numbers were so huge that to do it, Archimedes had to invent a whole new number system. The number of he got, in modern notation, was 8 x 1063 grains of sand, which is amazingly close to modern estimates for the number of known particles (though obviously we now know about massive amounts of vacuum too).

Archimedes finishes:
I conceive that these things will appear incredible to the great majority of people who have not studied mathematics, but that to those who are conversant therewith and have given thought to the question of the distances and sizes of the earth, the sun and moon and the whole universe, the proof will carry conviction. And it was for this reason that I thought the subject would not be inappropriate for your consideration.

The Archimedes Palimpsest is now on Google Books!

Back in 1229 A.D., someone, probably in Jerusalem, probably a monk, wanted to write a prayer book. He had no clean sheets of parchment, so he did what people used to do in those days: he looked for some existing parchment, intending to scrape it clean and re-use it.

As this fellow searched about for pre-loved parchment, his hand fell upon the last remaining copy of Archimedes' treatise called The Method of Mechanical Theorems. It wasn't a religious text so obviously no one would want it; he erased it. He picked up the only remaining copy of On Floating Bodies written in the original Greek. He erased that too. He erased sections of the Stomachion which have not survived anywhere else. He tossed in four other books by Archimedes which at least have survived elsewhere in other versions. For good measure he threw in ten pages of oratory from Hyperides, whose words appear nowhere else, the 4th century legal eagle who was the defender of Phryne the Hetaera, the man who made legal history in a way described in another of my articles.

This monk is lucky we don't know his name, because he may hold the record for the greatest single-handed destruction of knowledge ever. The burning of the Library of Alexandria would obviously have destroyed far more, but it took lots of men to do that. It was this fellow's bad luck to pick up one unique text after another.

Our monk erased all these unique books, and wrote over them a bunch of prayers of no particular interest whatsoever. The resulting palimpset passed from place to place until, 723 years later in 1906, the underlying text, barely visible through the overlying ink and mostly illegible, was recognized for what it was. Scholars took some photos, as best they could in 1906, and're not going to believe this, it reads like a thriller...the Archimedes Palimpsest went missing, probably stolen.

As far as anyone knew, that was the end of the story, the lost works of Archimedes lost once more.

Cut to 1998. Christies Auction House is selling a palimpsest that has been in a private collection since the 1930s. Upon inspection it turns out to be...the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Modern digital imaging technology was applied to the parchment before anyone else had a chance to lift it, and the Archimedes Palimpsest appears for the first time on Google Books. How cool is that?

This book is seriously out of copyright, so everyone is free to download it and at least gaze at ancient texts that went missing for centuries.

The most amazing thing for me about what's been discovered is that, in The Method of Mechanical Theorems, Archimedes describes a mathematical technique which is the next best thing to calculus! Now calculus was worked out independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th century, and its development opened up new ways to analyze the world and vastly sped up scientific discovery. It seems Archimedes got there first, but we didn't know it until now. How smart would a guy have to be to make such a discovery 1,600 years before the next person to work it out? And how much more advanced might the world be today if that monk had published Archimedes instead of wiping him out?