Particle accelerator reveals ancient medical manuscript replaced with religious text


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/03/21/particle-accelerator-reveals-a.html


#2

But what did it say? I mean not all “medicinal” words are good or all “religious” words bad.

If the new words were “love and treat everyone with dignity and respect” and the old words were “use leeches on your eyes to cure headaches” I’m sort of in the camp of dignity and respect and less blood sucking through my eye lids.

More info please. Otherwise it’s assumptions and gaslighting.


#3

thanks to idiots who burned papyrus for kindling

If I were freezing to death, I’d burn a stack of Da Vinci and whatever else was available. Sorry history, I’m getting cold!


#4

palimpsest
ˈpalɪm(p)sɛst/
noun
noun: palimpsest; plural noun: palimpsests

a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.


#5

Religion and Big Pharma / Big Heath Care go way back.


#6

I learned this word when I first read Contact.


#7

I don’t think the term “gaslighting” applies here at all.

But to your main point, science works by making a bad guess, then finding reasons that it is a bad guess and using them to make an improved guess. Repeat ad infinitum.

No matter how bad any particular guess is, the whole process breaks down when you scrape the guess off the historical record. Effacing a bad scientific theory doesn’t prevent anyone from coming up with the same theory in the future – it just prevents people from learning that it was a bad theory.

We want to know that people in the fifth century were putting leeches on eyeballs to cure headaches so that we can rule it out as a promising treatment. Otherwise sooner or later someone is going to say to themselves, “you know, maybe if we stuck some leeches on this guy’s eyes…”

On the other hand, you can fill as many religious texts with “love and treat everyone with dignity and respect” as you want and 2000 years later they’ll still somehow interpret that as “gays are inferior and women should be subservient”. Not to say that religious texts aren’t worth preserving for their own sake, but if I’m being honest, that’s more because I’m interested in history than because I think it’s really useful to mankind. (I believe that what’s useful about religion is preserved in living traditions of extant religious communities.)


#8

gaslighting is too strong a term, I’d agree with that; however, there are times when BB posts something with the same sort of left wing zeal as Fox news does with its right wing zeal. “Oh look, some religious zealot destroyed a scientific manuscript!!”

this: “Most of his work is lost to time thanks to idiots who burned papyrus for kindling or who scraped pages clean to write down their own junk.” seems on its face value to be a wild assumption.

This reply to me does something similar…it makes an assumption:

they’ll still somehow interpret that as “gays are inferior and women should be subservient”

Not all people of religion are evil and hate mongering. Just as not all people of science are altruistic and good. I am not taking a middle ground position here, I am stating I want more info before making a judgment. Not all religious text is bad, so what does this one say? What did the scientific manuscript say? I do not need the scientific method explained to me, nor is it a valid reasoning to pass judgment in this case.


#9

What I love about this is that we actually know it worked. So many times when we do examinations of relics we need to do a lot of guess work about what the observations actually mean. But when you “do science” and you uncover letters that form words, you don’t have to guess if you got it right, there’s not really a p value worth considering (null hypothesis: things just worked out this way?).

Normally I’m not that juiced about applications of science and I’m more of an abstract kind of person, but the idea that this is actually possible - that a text scraped away centuries ago wasn’t entirely destroyed - has me really excited.


#10

We forget that “paper” was actually a valuable thing back then, there weren’t huge industries devoted to pulping forests to make newsprint. Vellum is actually animal skin, it literally didn’t grow on trees.

I imagine the ancients would be horrified that we make fine soft tissue akin to silk, just so we can wipe our butts with it.


#11

What other lost manuscripts can be found again this way? I feel a sense of wonder to imagine this. That really is the exciting part.


#12

Well, it’s not really a wild assumption – it’s a historical fact that most of Galen’s work has been lost, and that a great deal of it was lost because the parchments were reused for copying religious texts.

It is heavily editorialized – the author says the people who did this were idiots, whereas I think it’s more reasonable to say that they had different values and life experiences that led them not to value scientific texts (they didn’t even have a concept of “science”) and led them to highly value the practice of copying the Christian bible.

Anyway, I’ve changed my mind – I do think preserving religious texts is potentially as valuable as preserving scientific texts after all.

Well, I didn’t accuse any religious people of being “evil”…but it doesn’t really matter – as I said, the intention of the authors of religious texts doesn’t always seem to have much to do with the behaviors of the people who end up reading them. For that matter, science doesn’t depend on the intentions of individual scientists either.

I guess my point is that it doesn’t matter – you can’t really say that the the manuscript was worthless just because the content has been superceded by modern medical science. The practical medical value of Galen’s writings isn’t what makes it sad that they’ve mostly been lost.


#13

Some background and context: Galen wrote his works (in Greek) in the 2nd Century AD. In the 6th Century, Sergius of Reshaina translated much of Galen (along with some of Aristotle and other Greek writers) into Syriac; these translations were later very important for the transmission of Greek scientific and philosophical thought into Arabic. The manuscript in question is believed to be a 9th Century copy of the Syriac translation of Galen’s On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs; roughly two centuries later, the text was scraped off and liturgical hymns (also in Syriac) were written in their place. (This is parchment – i.e., animal skin – rather than papyrus.)

A partial copy of Sergius’s translation exists in the British Library, but this palimpsest is much larger and more complete (and might even contain other works). This isn’t, strictly speaking, a “lost” work: we already have versions of the full On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs in (later) Arabic and Byzantine Greek versions. But this palimpsest will probably be very useful for understanding how Galen’s work entered into Islamic medicine and science.


#14

Why would reading this give me goosebumps? Science unlocking history is the best!

(Did I forget to take my pills?)


#15

I learned it reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose the year it came out.

Definitely a very interesting word.


#16

So, now we have both a religious text, a scientific text and possibly other texts thanks to the preservation of this document and modern science. Nice.


#17

Exactly. The Greeks practiced the four Humors, blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. While their methods may not have been as damaging as later blood letting etc, I think to call what they practiced “science” is a bit of a stretch.

Also, while some monks recycled works, others monks DID keep some of the Greek texts safe from the fire and toilet.


#18

Agreed on all things, except the last one.

I will compare it to my personal life…during the day I am a developer. At home I am a chef. In both instances I create one thing that can at times be a failure as well as a success (good/bad code and good/bad dishes). I do not save my bad coding. I do not take the borked code that doesn’t work and save it a as reminder of what I did wrong. I only keep the good code. Additionally, I do not save/write down recipes that failed…I am not planning on releasing a book of “Never try these at home” recipes. I only save the stuff that did work.

To your point…am I setting up the possibility of making the same mistake twice? Sure…but not likely. I know why those things didn’t work and I remember those failures. I learn and move forward. My memory isn’t perfect for sure, but it succeeds for me more than it fails me.

I concur…that they were lost is the travesty; however, my inquiring mind wants to know what was lost. Because if it was his grocery shopping list…it is a little less of a travesty. :smiley:

EDIT: to @Mister44 's point…the content does matter here, because it is possible history has it wrong. Maybe Galen was in fact at his time a crackpot called Dr. Death! It wouldn’t be the first time we mischaracterized an historical figure. I just want to know more is all it boils down to.


#19

if you get to the very first layer it reads…“I once new a man from Nantucket…”


#20

I liked how the movie title sequence said it was a palimpsest of the book