The Deacon Blog

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

Class of 1979

Steve Duin’s view from the West Coast to the Grand Canal on Words Awake!

Steve Duin (’76, MA ’79) joined the crowd of Wake Forest alumni writers who returned on March 23 for the Words Awake! writers conference, but he didn’t leave the experience behind after he landed at home in Portland. He treated his Oregon newspaper readers to his take on what made the event special, including his appreciation for his time at Casa Artom in Venice and the guidance provided by the inimitable James Barefield, Wake Forest history professor and purveyor of the comic view.

Portland's Steve Duin

Duin is metro columnist for The (Portland) Oregonian and is the author or co-author of six books, the latest of which is “Oil and Water,” a graphic novel illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler. He served on the Words Awake! panel titled “Writing Sports,” an appropriate topic for someone who penned a compelling cover story for Wake Forest Magazine last summer about baseball coach Tom Walter’s gift of a kidney to then-freshman and centerfielder Kevin Jordan.

“Some of us are lucky. We happened upon Wake Forest, often by chance, and when we’re asked why we love the place, we remember Sunday mornings on the Quad, Saturday nights at the stadium and Wednesday afternoons with the romantic poets,” he wrote. “But everyone else? This is the story they will remember. When they hear the words ‘Wake Forest,’ they will celebrate the kidney that passed from Tom Walter to Kevin Jordan, a gift as big as life. And when they become fathers, this is the history they will tell their sons.”

Look for Duin’s next story that explains the University’s literary tradition in the Wake Forest Magazine summer issue, arriving in mailboxes in June. Here’s a preview of what’s in store: “And there were few checkpoints where we had to flash credentials, pay our dues or beg for permission.  When we were still clueless, Wake Forest allowed us to make waves and mistakes.  When we were still searching for God knows what, the University encouraged us to push the limits, exploit our immaturity, even take our innocence abroad to London, Venice or Ireland. You want to know why so many Wake grads became writers?  Because when we walked into the room with a novel idea, someone’s eyes lit up.”

Joy Goodwin ('95) and Steve Duin at Words Awake!

In the photo above, you see Duin with Joy Goodwin (’95). The two share a love for Barefield. (The upcoming summer issue also features a Goodwin piece about the peripatetic professor who enjoys being a character.)

In the meantime, don’t miss Duin’s tribute in The Oregonian to Barefield in which he writes, “He and I have remained close over the years, a friendship that owes as much to the intimacy of Wake Forest as it does to the intensity of the Venice program.”

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.