The Deacon Blog

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


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.

Shane Harris on the Patriot Act’s renewal

The federal government’s investigative powers received a booster shot last week when Congress renewed the Patriot Act. National Public Radio’s “On the Media” turned to Shane Harris (’98), who has been writing about intelligence and national security for 10 years, to analyze the legislation.

Harris is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine and the author of “The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State.” Time magazine said the book “reads like a spy novel,” but Harris “lays out the U.S. government’s real-life efforts to see and hear more in the face of growing terrorist threats.”

Shane Harris ('98), author, senior writer, analyst

In the radio interview Harris summarized the three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act that allow the government to obtain multiple wiretaps when tracking a single person; obtain various business records, including hotel and rental car documents; and start surveillance on someone even if the government can’t show the person is connected to a terrorist organization or is a foreign agent or a spy. Harris was also intrigued by a senator’s accusation that there could be “secrecy within secrecy” in the way the government is interpreting the act to allow for the collection of more information.

The summer issue of Wake Forest Magazine features a Q&A with Harris called “Spy Talk.” He recalls his Wake Forest days and remembers having had “extraordinary opportunities to write, and extraordinarily forgiving instructors.” Stay tuned, alumni. The magazines should arrive in your mail early this month, and we hope to have the online edition available in the next few days.

Editor Al Hunt (’65) honored in D.C.

Earlier this week Washington, D.C., journalists had their red-carpet moment at the 28th annual awards dinner hosted by the National Press Foundation. Receiving top billing was one of the most prominent journalists to graduate from Wake Forest, Al Hunt (’65, P ’11), executive Washington editor for Bloomberg News and host of  “Political Capital” on Bloomberg Television. He is also a member of the WFU Board of Trustees.

Al Hunt“Few journalists have had more impact in shaping the practice of journalism in Washington than Al Hunt has had,” NPF board chairman Gerald F. Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal, said in a statement from the foundation. “First in covering Congress, then as a nationally respected political correspondent, then as a television presence, then as an editor and manager, he has demonstrated that it’s possible — in fact, essential — to bring fairness, accuracy, balance, toughness and analytical insights into the coverage of our nation’s elected and appointed leaders. More than that, newsrooms across Washington are populated with journalists who learned these lessons from Al Hunt, and have gone on to spread his influence across the nation’s capital.”

Hunt received The Chairman’s Citation, determined solely by the nonprofit educational foundation’s chairman. It honors “individuals or organizations whose work falls outside traditional categories of excellence.” Previous honorees have included Colbert I. King, columnist with the Washington Post; Otis Chandler, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times; and the journalists of the Gulf Coast, who kept working through Hurricane Katrina despite great personal suffering to keep their readers, viewers and listeners informed.

On April 13 Hunt and his wife, Judy Woodruff, will appear at 6 p.m. in Wait Chapel in a Voices of Our Time event. Woodruff is a senior correspondent for “The PBS NewsHour” and anchor of  “Conversations with Judy Woodruff” on Bloomberg Television. In a conversation with President Nathan Hatch, the couple will discuss the intertwining of political, cultural and journalistic life in Washington and share insights on raising a family in the nation’s capital.