Science

Science to Mythology: Nice try.

There is a metaphor in here somewhere.

More than two millennia ago, an ancient thinker and scientist recorded his ideas in text and diagrams written on papyrus. Lacking the luxury of, say, your average Xerox machine, appreciative people took it upon themselves to copy these important words on other pieces of papyrus. Eventually, one enterprising soul took the fragile papyrus and copied the text and diagrams down onto sturdy goatskin in the hopes that future generations might benefit from these great thoughts.

Enter religion. About fifteen centuries after these ideas were originally written, thrifty and enterprising monks (to be exact, one monk in particular whose name survives today: Johannes Myronas) disassembled the goatskin. They scraped off the top layer to hide the words. They cut each sheet in half, turned it sideways, and bound it together again. They then wrote their prayers on the recycled (palimpsested) book.

The volume was stored away in a library in Constantinople (now Istanbul — why? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks), a manuscript of science disguised as a book of God.

Things started to look up in 1906, when a professor discovered the book and noticed the faint text, recognizing it as the writing of the great Archimedes. He photographed many of the pages, but missed a lot of the text that was obscured by the new binding.

The book then ended up in the hands of a collector in France. This collector believed that the value of the book was not in the science, but in the religion. He therefore added new illustrative art to the pages designed to look like the work of the monks in the hopes of getting more bang for his buck when he resold it. The book disappeared once again, and only reappeared in 1998 when Christie’s auctioned it off to an anonymous collector for $2 million dollars. The collector handed the text over to the Walters Art Museum in Maryland, where researchers have spent the past eight years attempting to look past the forged art and religious prayers in order to see the true value hidden deep within the pages.

Enter Dr. Uwe Bergmann, who studies spinach at Stanford University. After hearing the tale of the Archimedes palimpsest, he realized that the same linear accelerator he uses to x-ray spinach could also x-ray the document, causing the original Greek letters to glow enough to outshine the later Christian graffiti. It happened just last Friday, and the whole world got to watch via a live webcast.

I won’t beat you over the head with this true fable’s moral or even belabor the irony that Myronas’ actions of disguising the book as a religious text probably kept it from being destroyed. I just want you to remember this story the next time you think that the other guys are winning.

You can see the archived webcast and learn more here.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you Rebecca for posting the webcast, cutting edge science in real time, just amazing what they are doing with this document. What struck was the collaberation between the scientists and the scholars…they are having a BLAST working together. There is just no role for the pseudo-scientists and they cannot join in the reindeer games. How sad.

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