December 13, 2007


The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist. By Reviel Netz & William Noel. Da Capo. $27.50.

Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind. By Paula Kamen. Da Capo. $26.

      The Da Vinci Code was fiction. The Archimedes Codex is fact – although some aspects of it read like fiction. The codex is a palimpsest, a manuscript with a new layer of text written over an old one that has been scraped or washed off. The new text is a set of prayers in Greek, written by a monk around the year 1200. The underlying text is what remains of a copy of the papyrus scrolls onto which Archimedes wrote many of his most important discoveries before his death in 212 B.C. The tale of the palimpsest really does read like an adventure story: discovered in Istanbul, partially transcribed in 1906, then stolen or lost, missing until around 1930, bought by a French traveler in an antiques shop, kept in Paris for seven decades (although one page that had been torn from it was analyzed at Cambridge University in England in 1971), and eventually sold in 1998 for $2 million. The authors of The Archimedes Codex are intimately involved in figuring out what it says: William Noel is Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, to which the codex is on loan, and Reviel Netz is a specialist in ancient science and professor of classics and philosophy at Stanford University. Unfortunately, since this is a book of fact and not fiction, it is not as neatly paced as a novel and may not produce knowledge of much interest to the casual reader – although it will be enormously exciting to historians and mathematicians. Just to cite one amazing example, it seems from the codex that Archimedes developed a form of mathematics that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz discovered (or, it now appears, rediscovered) and called The Calculus nearly 2,000 years later. But to get to the discoveries and understand their significance, readers must wade into discussions of the medieval origins of mathematical symbols, the development of abbreviations by the copiers of old manuscripts, and a great deal of theoretical math. The elegance of Archimedes’ reasoning will be readily appreciated by mathematicians, but not by everyday readers, who are unlikely to understand exactly what the authors mean when they write, “Consider that each treatise by Archimedes contains at least one…moment of magic [in its proofs] and you can begin to see the measure of the man.” Unfortunately, this book, for all its fascinations, does not make it easy for the non-specialist to see what that measure is.

      What, then, is the measure of Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, who died a suicide at the age of 30, in 2004? Paula Kamen, a commentator and longtime friend of Chang – whom she had known since they were in college together – sets out in Finding Iris Chang to discover what lay behind the apparent perfection of Chang’s life. That perfection, Kamen reasons, could not have been real, since Chang committed suicide (there were rumors that she was murdered, but there is no evidence of that). And sure enough, Kamen finds out things about Chang that the author herself never wanted revealed – most notably that she struggled with bipolar disorder, likely connected with numerous miscarriages caused by her inability to carry a child to term. Mental illness is more stigmatized in the Asian community than in many others – witness the discussions, after the fact, of the mental state of Seung-Hui Cho, the Korean who killed 33 people, including himself, at Virginia Tech last year. Chang was at pains to conceal her psychological problems; Kamen professes herself shocked at the lengths to which Chang went “to appear perfect.” Kamen also reveals that Chang’s son was born to a surrogate mother. These and many other revelations will be at least mildly interesting to fans of Chang’s work, but they are really irrelevant to the quality of the work itself – and unnecessary to understand and be moved by what Chang left behind. Unlike paparazzi-attracting celebrities who spend much of their time acting famous, Chang was quite private about many of the details of her life that Kamen ferrets out and reveals. Although the book is written sensitively, with Kamen expressing considerable affection for Chang, there is a certain unpleasant sense of voyeurism about Finding Iris Chang that makes it seem less a work of friendship than one in which a friendship is, after the fact, exploited.

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