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Archimedean Surprises

The ghost of Archimedes was alive and well at the Joint Mathematics Meetings. The first sign of life came during an MAA Short Course on mathematics in the ancient world. Reviel Netz, a classics professor at Stanford University, gave a stimulating talk pointing out how Archimedes' scientific personality comes through in his writings. As Netz put it, Archimedes had "a desire to connect things in an unexpected way---he was actively seeking the unexpected." In this regard, Archimedes was the quintessential example of the Greek way in mathematics, which is to try always to do something new and fresh, so that the individual act of doing mathematics leaves "fingerprints" in the results. This contrasts with the modern approach in mathematics, which seeks to codify and systematize results so as to make them as general and as impersonal as possible. Netz also discussed his and a colleague's new interpretation of Archimedes' "The Method," which appears to show that some of Archimedes' ideas anticipated calculus. Netz is a member of a team studying a palimpsest that contains "The Method" and that is now housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. After changing hands a number of times during the 20th century, the palimpsest was sold in 1998 by Christies auction house to an anonymous American buyer who is now funding the entire project of conserving, imaging, studying, and publishing the text of the palimpsest. The project is being carried out by a team of six Walters museum staff members, four imaging specialists, and three classics scholars, including Netz. The short course at the Joint Meetings included a trip to the museum where some of the project team members spoke about their work and some pages of the palimpsest were brought out for the particpants to see.

--- Allyn Jackson, Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS

[The MAA Short Course Mathematics in the Ancient World was held on January 13 and 14.]

More highlights of the 2003 Joint Mathematics Meetings