Archimedes Palimpsest

by E. Russell Smith
The Write Idea
Second Place, April 2014
Judged by R.T. Castleberry


The original is lost,
but thirteen centuries after
Archimedes wrote in Syracuse
the mysteries of his mathematics
someone in Byzantium copied them
on parchment, on a vellum scrap
consigned to waste but rescued,

scraped and bound to make
a prayer book in Jerusalem,
petitions set right-angled to
the Greek geometry, obscuring it –
floating intimations of infinity,
the unlikely calculus of zero,
the value (not the life) of Pi,

the doubtful purity of standards
(gold or otherwise) and
leverage, political or not –
a puzzling stomach ache
from images not seen today
by Archimedes’ lights, but
ultraviolet, infrared, and x.


Americans are obsessed with refreshing and reviving the past. We dine out on new rumors about old stars, revive old tv shows for new movies, recycle old styles of fashion and architecture. We market our dead, whether Monroe or Lincoln, Custer or Kurt Cobain.

"Archimedes Palimpsest," the tale of how a scrap filled with mathematical equations was “consigned to waste but rescued” to be turned into a prayer book, is a unique and complex story of reclamation told in clear and witty terms. --R.T. Castleberry


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