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The secrets of Archimedes

Archimedes was one of the greatest mathematicians of his time. In the 3rd century B.C. he discovered such fundamental things as pi and calculus. Today, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore holds a lot of manuscripts and rare books for study and conservation. One of them is the so called Archimedes Palimpsest, the only remains of unknown works by Archimedes himself. Or should I say previously unknown?

The scientists are using x-ray fluorescence to actually read it for the first time! The text was written on a thousand year old goat skin by an unknown writer, copying an earlier source. Two hundred years later the parchment was needed for another text, so a monk erased the ink with a weak acid and used it to write a book for prayers. However, all is not lost. A scientist named Uwe Bergmann learned that the ink contained iron pigment. Three pages were taken with him at SSRL in New Jersey, where they measure small concentrations of iron in proteins, for study.

They are now studying the manuscript with a specific x-ray frequency that causes the remaining traces of iron to fluoresce. This is caught by a sensitive detector which renders the content of the old manuscript back to life again. It’s a very delicate process, considering that the remains of the ink is only a few microns thick, and the x-ray could do damage if the beam rests on the same spot for too many milliseconds.

It may not be cool enough to make you jump out of the bath tub and run naked down the street shouting “Eureka”, but still very interesting.

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