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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Maria Henson

Archimedes: the talk of NY, Washington and The Atlantic

The Archimedes Palimpsest, the subject of the current Wake Forest Magazine cover story, along with Michael Toth’s (’79) work to restore it, continued to make news this weekend. The exhibit that displays the ancient documents opened at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore on Sunday.

From The Washington Post: The exhibit is about “a book, a 10th-century manuscript that was overwritten in the 13th century with Greek Orthodox prayers. But it is also an exhibition about the iceberg, the laborious work it has taken to make the book legible, understand its origins and importance, decipher its text and translate its contents. It is an exhibition about ancient science and the drama of how thoughts from the 3rd century B.C. were transmitted from the mind of the great mathematician Archimedes to papyrus to sheepskin to digital files now available to anyone with access to the internet. It is a smart and engaging effort that forgoes the usual sacralization of the object itself — a musty old book — in favor of the tools and techniques and especially the passion that has motivated work on this ancient codex …. If you have a sentimental attachment to rationality, enlightenment and science, it is infuriating to think of Archimedes defaced with a prayer book. (curator William) Noel argues otherwise — that the recycling of Archimedes helped preserve what otherwise might simply have been lost or discarded.”

From historian Edward Tenner in The Atlantic: “All this is a great tribute to conservation and imaging science. But it’s also a reminder of how incredibly durable analog media can be, retaining information through earthquake, fire, scraping, and damage by insects and molds. In desert conditions, even older documents have survived, like a 3,200-year-old dream book from Deir el-Medina, Egypt. And the study of the new Archimedes treatises are likely to deepen our admiration for what ancient thinkers were able to accomplish with the technology at their disposal.”

From Edward Rothstein in The New York Times: “’The Archimedes Palimpsest’ could well be the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, though its plot’s esoteric arcana might also be useful for Dan Brown in his next variation on “The Da Vinci Code.” It features a third-century B.C. Greek mathematician (Archimedes) known for his playful brilliance; his lost writings, discovered more than a hundred years ago in an Istanbul convent; and various episodes involving plunder, pilferage and puzzling forgeries. The saga includes a monastery in the Judaean desert, a Jewish book dealer trying to flee Paris as the Nazis closed in, a French freedom fighter and an anonymous billionaire collector ….

At the center is an ancient volume, its parchment recycled into a 13th-century prayer book. And at the climax we see those old folios, charred at the edges and scarred by dripping wax from the candles of devout monks, being meticulously studied for 12 years by an international team using the most advanced imaging technologies of the 21st century. And what is found is more revelatory than had ever been expected.”

It’s a point of pride that a Demon Deacon, schooled in science and history, served on that team.

The Wall St. Journal on the Archimedes Palimpsest

Michael Toth (’79) isn’t mentioned this morning in The Wall Street Journal’s “Reading Beneath the Lines” about the Walters Art Museum’s Oct. 16-Jan. 1 exhibit in Baltimore called “Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” but I think he should be, and, at Wake Forest Magazine in the latest issue, he is.

Adventurer and historical detective Michael Toth ('79)

Toth was one of the digital-imaging experts who helped reveal the vestigial ink of the undertext of a prayer book that turned out to be treatises on math by Archimedes. Here’s how the Journal’s William Triplett describes it today: “In 1229, a monk in Jerusalem wanted to make a prayer book, but virgin parchment — the staple of medieval publishing — was hard to come by. So the monk did what most people did at the time — took existing handwritten books, removed the binding, and used a knife to scrape the ink as much as possible from the parchment folios. He then cut the folios in half, rotated them 90 degrees and started writing on them. Eventually he added a new binding, and a palimpsest — derived from the Greek word palimpsestos, meaning ‘scraped again’ — was born.

“The monk had used parchment from several books, the principal one a tome of Archimedes’s treatises on math, first written on papyrus in the third century B.C. and then copied into book form around the 10th century, (Will) Noel (curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters) says.”

In Wake Forest Magazine, Mark Schrope (’93) interviews Toth about the long process to recover the writings. “With all the projects I’ve worked on the goal is to always ensure the data become available for the public good,” Toth tells him.

And that’s a crucial point of today’s article about the Walters exhibit and, at Wake Forest, a reminder of how a liberal arts education allows alumni to work across disciplines and occupations. (In Toth’s case he began as biology student, shifted to history, graduated, worked in U.S. intelligence, the Defense Department and NASA before putting his experience in handling satellite imagery to work examining historical treasures as an adventurer-detective possessing a distinguished facility with multispectral imaging.)

“Quite possibly the exhibit will show that history itself may be a kind of palimpsest,” writes Triplett in the Journal. “‘Whether you study philosophy or science or whatever,’ Mr. Noel says, ‘the Archimedes palimpsest breaks down boundaries between disciplines. It contains history, philosophy and mathematics, and then all the latest technologies that were applied — the digital imaging, the metadata management — along with all the scholarship. We’d like people to know that because of all these things, history is still being written.’”

Thanks to Toth, we have a glimpse of history, the very ancient roots of our civilization, unearthed with modern technology and painstaking care.

Melissa Harris-Perry (’94): a ‘marquee name’ at Tulane

You won’t want to miss The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune’s in-depth profile of Melissa Harris-Perry (’94), who, after four years at Princeton, is now a tenured professor in her first year of teaching at Tulane University. The piece refers to her as a marquee name. “She’s a public intellectual,” says Tulane Provost Michael Bernstein.

Melissa Harris Perry shines in the media and the classroom

Aside from her 47,741 Twitter followers, Harris-Perry has viewers, listeners and readers across the country paying attention. She has been a guest host for “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” on MSNBC. She has appeared on ”Real Time With Bill Maher,” writes a column for The Nation magazine and regularly comments on NPR and online on issues involving race, religion, politics and gender.  ”Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America,” her newest book, was published last month.

“Women in Politics, Media, and the Contemporary United States” is the political science course she teaches this semester in what sounds like a lively classroom with lots of back-and-forth questions and cultural references. “When she’s speaking, she owns the room,” Cara Fonseca, one of the students, told The Times-Picayune’s John Pope. “But she makes the environment so comfortable, bringing in pop culture. That’s what keeps students engaged, the balance between academics and pop culture.”

The Times-Picayune also mentions Harris-Perry’s time at Wake Forest. You’ll see more about that in the fall issue of Wake Forest Magazine, due in alumni mailboxes this month.  The article by Lisa Kline Mowry (’82) features a selection of professors around the country who recount experiences in their undergraduate days that sparked their interest in an academic career. Watch for those magazines soon — and Melissa Harris-Perry — and follow updates online at magazine.wfu.edu.

The Wake Forest ‘mystique’

As an alum who worked on the Old Gold & Black when I was a student, I like to keep up with what the modern-day OG&B staff is producing in print and online. “Breaking the Wake Forest Bubble/Hamlin’s Ramblins” caught my eye in this week’s issue. Senior columnist Hamlin Wade of Charlotte addresses the question of what Wake Forest has to offer “in the sleepy town of Winston-Salem.”

He wrote days before the U.S. News and World Report announcement Tuesday that ranked Wake Forest once again 25th among national universities in its 2012 Best Colleges guide, a point of pride for many. Wade is interested in something else beyond metrics: “something perhaps intangible and undefined” about the University’s character. He recounts how student leaders last spring tried to come up with what composed the Wake Forest “mystique.” No one could pinpoint it.  There was no consensus.

“Wake is a place of reverence and passion, a place of community, and a place of individuality,” he writes. “The mystique of Wake Forest is its diversity and its layers. What may be mystical to one student may be completely common stance and mundane to another.” Take your pick: magnolia trees, bell tower, academic tradition, athletics, or, in Wade’s words, the university’s “long and storied history.”

What do you think? What is that mystique about Wake Forest that Wade urges us as individuals to define for ourselves? Send me an email, and I’ll share your comments: hensonm@wfu.edu

P.S. I, for one, can point to one element of the mystique: enduring friendships. You know who I’m talking about, fellow Deacons.