The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Is there anything those ancient Greeks didn't know? They invented the steam engine, the coin-operated vending machine, and even a rudimentary computer.

Now, they can add the mathematical field of combinatorics to those breakthroughs, courtesy of a familiar name: Archimedes. Archimedes' obscure and incomplete "Stomachion treatise" has just been interpreted as an early exercise in combinatronics, "a field that did not come into its own until the rise of computer science".

News like this makes me wonder if the ancients really were that far advanced, or if we're simply not as far along as we usually assume. It's taken this long to develop a world/society/civilization that can foster the continued development and progression of advanced concepts; and maintaining such an environment is a lot trickier than it seems. Imagine if what had been started 2,200 years ago had been sustained.

One thing that annoyed me about this piece was that it took until the very end to explain the name of the treatise:

As for the name, derived from the Greek word for stomach, mathematicians are uncertain. But Dr. Diaconis has a hunch.

"It comes from 'stomach turner,' " he said. "If you get involved with it, that's what happens."

As I was reading through this article, I kept thinking that "stomachion" sounded alot like the modern Greek (and by extension, English) word for "stomach", but you can't always tell with ancient words. I wish the reporter would have revealed that early on.