By The way...
andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Fri Nov 14 17:48:16 UTC 2003
... I am not the list moderator just a frequent poster:
Scholars resuscitate dead languages
Tech advances help illustrate how Arabs preserved ancient wisdom
By Jenny Attiyeh
Special to the HNO
"Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth," said Archimedes
in a boastful claim about the marvelous properties of the lever. He was
the first to prove mathematically that this seemingly simple device
could lift great loads, if only the weight-bearing plank were
positioned properly on its pivot. Building on this principle,
Archimedes went on to invent machines capable of performing previously
unimaginable tasks and ushered in a new era of mastery and achievement
for ancient Greece in the third century B.C.
Today, a team of Harvard scholars in the Department of the Classics is
leveraging 21st century technology to achieve wonders of its own. The
aptly named Archimedes Project, now in its third year, aims to
investigate the history of mechanics with new, penetrating tools that
can, with a click or two of a mouse, peel back time and reveal
heretofore hidden truths.
The goal of this academic research project, which is funded by the
National Science Foundation and conducted in collaboration with the Max
Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, is to develop
advanced computer technology that will help scholars mine myriad
scientific texts in a variety of languages, but also to connect the
dots between them. In this way, it can broaden the scope of
scholarship, but also sharpen the scholar's ability to probe deeply
into the past, thereby shedding new light on generally accepted
"Now what we can do is take into account a vastly wider range of
evidence, and that changes the picture quite considerably," explained
Mark Schiefsky, an assistant professor of the classics at Harvard and
the principal investigator of the Harvard team. "It changes our idea of
what mechanics was like in antiquity, in such a way that it makes it
seem both much more complicated and more modern than one might have
In other words, Archimedes, Aristotle, and their ilk were far more
advanced in their thinking than we generally give them credit for. They
were truly ahead of their time. And Schiefsky and his team plan to
But for that you need sharp, smart tools, which are the chief
responsibility of Malcolm D. Hyman, a research associate with the
project. "What we want to do is to get scholars to be able to see the
big picture," said Hyman. "This is a complex tradition. We have all
these different languages, and we have lots of texts. By using this
technology, what we hope to do is to allow people to work with a mass
of material that they would otherwise not be able to work with."
In some ways, the technology driving the Archimedes Project resembles
the sophisticated computer programming used more often in the hard
sciences, where computers are designed to decode genes, or map complex
chemical structures. But the Archimedes team intends to prove that such
techniques can also bear fruit in the humanities and the softer
"It's a new direction for the study of the past and its future," said
Elaheh Kheirandish, a Harvard lecturer and the third member of the
Archimedes Project team. "It's very young, and there's no question that
it's uncommon, but there are very interesting projects that use
humanities and technology."
So far, the Archimedes Project technology can perform a variety of
impressive feats, including automatic morphological analysis - which
means that each word in a text, be it Greek, Arabic, or Latin, can be
linked to its root form in the dictionary. This is a godsend for
scholars who want to study primary sources in their original languages,
but need a little extra help in mastering them.
A key software program for the project is called Arboreal. It
facilitates linguistically complex searches, and also allows for the
annotation and creation of data. In this way, you can scribble in the
margins, as it were, of the ancient text inhabiting your computer
screen. "What's novel about Arboreal is the integration of all these
linguistic tools into one package," explained Hyman, who created it.
"It's new in scale - there is no existing tool, actually, that will
serve scholars working in the type of texts that we're working on.
Arboreal is the first."
But it is nonetheless insufficient. Eager for more, the Archimedes team
is in the process of acquiring yet another instrument for its forensic
research, called latent semantic indexing. This technology uses
statistics to characterize and identify texts by determining the
structure and meaning of words, how frequently they are used, and in
what context. In this way, for example, the identity of an anonymous
author can be discovered, and translations can be distinguished from
With such tools, the Archimedes Project members can start to ask, and
answer, questions that have until now been too unwieldy or
time-consuming to tackle.
In particular, the Archimedes team hopes to go back in history and
re-create important ancient Greek texts, which were known to have
existed but have since disappeared.
"For the first time I feel that there is the possibility of
reconstructing lost fragments," said Kheirandish, speaking of missing
documents by Archimedes, which are referred to in later texts on
mechanics. "The technology gives you a range of vocabulary in a
magnitude that is unimaginable. The fact that you have the linkage of
all these roots, the morphology, the connections, allows you to
reconstruct something almost on the spot."
In many cases, these lost Greek texts can only be reconstructed through
careful analysis of a handful of critically important Arabic
translations, which are the only copies of these works to have
survived. During the early Middle Ages, while much of Europe
stagnated, Arabic culture, with its headquarters in Baghdad,
flourished. Starting in the ninth century A.D., caliphs and viziers
funded an extensive and systematic translation movement, which
transferred to their own time the ancient wisdom of the Greeks, thereby
preserving many crucial texts, which would have otherwise perished.
"It's a process of transformation, where Greek originals are transformed
into Arabic sources, which are then used for further development,"
Schiefsky said. "In those days, they really did appreciate what the
Greeks had achieved and tried to bring it into their own language."
Certain Arabic translations - such as one by Qusta Ibn Luqa of a
document called "The Mechanics" by Heron of Alexandria, a first century
A.D. Greek scientist - are key texts for the Archimedes Project team as
it sets out to reconstruct, to translate in reverse, missing Greek
documents. In particular, Schiefsky and Kheirandish, who reads both
Arabic and Persian, are working on a section of this text in which
references to Archimedes' definition of the "center of gravity" appear.
"Archimedes apparently invented the concept of center of gravity. It
persists throughout the entire history of mechanics, and one of the
important things about this text is that it gives us insights into the
introduction of this concept," explained Schiefsky. "So if one can
reconstruct from this an actual argument of Archimedes that belongs to
some lost work, that would be quite helpful."
Although Archimedes' notion of the center of gravity does not anticipate
Newton's breakthrough 20 centuries later, it does reveal sophisticated
abstract thinking on weights and balances. Archimedes realized that the
entire weight of an object could be regarded as concentrated at a
single point - its center of gravity. This concept, which is still
accepted today, is essential in designing mechanical systems.
Such third century B.C. thinking was precocious, and according to
Schiefsky, "extremely modern" on the part of Archimedes. It's
Schiefsky's hope that the Archimedes Project will be able to not only
reconstruct Archimedes' original argument on this concept, but also, in
time, rescue from neglect dozens of Greek texts, which currently exist
only as Arabic translations.
"This will take years of work from all three of us, and beyond, to
actually get to where we want to be," explained Kheirandish. "But one
must not shy away from these things. Three years back when we started,
where we are today would have been unthinkable." Academic research of
this nature is usually slow and painstaking, but the Archimedes team is
betting that their technology has the potential to transform this
"We're taking off in leaps and bounds," said Schiefsky. "We're not
trying to do everything by hand. This one little example on the center
of gravity is only the first of the many results we could expect when
we actually apply the full resources of modern technology to these
questions - which has never been done. So what we can expect, I think,
is really extremely impressive."
André Cramblit: andre.p.cramblit.86 at alum.dartmouth.org Operations Director
Northern California Indian Development Council NCIDC (http://www.ncidc.org)
is a non-profit that meets the development needs of American Indians and
operates an art gallery featuring the art of California tribes
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