Tuesday, May 05, 2009

When Knowledge is Forgotten

Since I am a believer that God is sovereign, I sometimes ponder the way history worked out the way it did. Case in point: Archimedes and calculus. Calculus is one of the fundamental things that our modern lives are built on. Without calculus you cannot easily find the area of a curved surface, for example.

In 1906 someone discovered a prayer book in Istanbul and noticed that the prayers were written over faded Greek letters and diagrams. It was a copy of Archimedes' work from 200 B.C., the earliest known work on anything resembling calculus. His method of exhaustion was similar to the Riemann sum method of measuring the area under a curve.

This work was lost and calculus wasn't "discovered" until Leibniz and Newton worked things out in the late 1600s. The prayer book was recently re-discovered and sold at auction. The pages have been meticulously analyzed and you can view the Archimedes Palimpset at Google Books.

Had Archimedes' work been known, would calculus have come about much sooner? Probably. Would we now be further along in our technological understanding? Most likely. But we are where we are because, somehow, Archimedes' work was not passed along. Why would a sovereign God cause such a thing to happen? He is the author of history, so only He knows.

I'm reminded of 2 Kings 22, where Hilkiah the high priest accidentally rediscovered the Book of Law in the temple. Israel's history, customs, and laws had all been lost and forgotten. All that remained had been passed down in other ways. Josiah led the people to get back to the Book, he realized how far behind his nation had fallen over the centuries. I can imagine the "if only we had found this sooner," moment.

It's fascinating to think about. How many other works and discoveries were lost where, had they not been lost, the world would be a much different place today?

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