Sunday, July 10, 2011

Those Ancient Conversations: Archimedes and Cousin Gary

When I was just a boy, my cousin Gary Burnett lived in Arizona. He told us, my brother and me, stories about it. There were plants there with thorns that, if I remember correctly, could shoot them at you even if you just walked too near. And the desert was deadly. You could get into trouble from the heat and die from it before you knew it.

Then there was a story about a family that had been on a trip and had car trouble. They had abandoned their car and attempted to make it back to civilization for help. They had died along the way. The youngest children had died first, closest to the car; then older children; and last the father, his family scrubbed from existence before his eyes. Death must’ve come as a bitter mercy to him.

As I say, I was a child when I heard this, and, as far as I know, I only heard it once. It made an impression on me. So much was this the case that when I was in Utah in the mid-nineties, at least twenty years later, I never went anywhere out of the Provo city limits without six gallons of water with me. For years, I never heard the words “Arizona” or “desert” without having a flash of skeletonized remains and mummified flesh stretched across bone.

Did I mention that Gary was a really good storyteller?

Now imagine that you are a storyteller and have a good story to tell, but there is no one around to tell your story to, or, I should say, there was no one to tell your story to who was capable of understanding it.

This was the case with Archimedes. I am reading a book now called The Archimedes Codex which is about the rediscovery and recovery of the so-called Archimedes palimpsest. According to this book, Archimedes had outlived the last person he believed capable of understanding him and so began writing letters to individuals at the library at Alexandria in order that they might be preserved for future generations when other worthy minds might come along who could understand what Archimedes was saying.

Those minds did come along from time to time. He was so far advanced from his contemporaries that his writings were almost lost, but they did survive long enough to come into the hands of such a Galileo and Newton to help kindle modern science.

This idea of being ahead of one’s time is important. We are surrounded by the achievements of the past which serve as scaffolding for us. We may climb high without much effort using structure which took hundreds or thousands of years to build. For example, Archimedes didn’t have algebra.

For most algebra is something they are forced to learn that they will never use. For those who use it, it is a language that facilitates the solving of problems. What is now the work of a few minutes and a few lines to an average high school student was once the work of many days of a great mind using many pages of argument. Algebra and other tools of mathematics provide an infrastructure for scientific ideas.

Archimedes worked without that infrastructure. It took almost two-thousand years for the language to catch up to where he was. He had faith to know that it would, so he wrote letters to the future.

I think about this in connection with Bible study. We are eavesdropping on a conversation that is thousands of years old. Parts of the conversation are like things we heard when we were very young. We heard our parents say words and saw them do things that we didn’t understand; sense data without a connecting narrative. As adults we can look back to try to piece it all together.

As with Archimedes, over the millennia, the language in which we can discuss the Bible has been built by the many great minds which have encountered it. Traditions have formed to help us along.

The stories my cousin Gary told us about Arizona scared us, but life has brought me experience to aid in interpreting those stories. The fear is still there, but experience brought knowledge to mature that fear into respect. The danger is just as real as he described: while in Utah, we learned out own desert horror stories.

But we did make desert trips. The knowledge that others gained and shared helped us to make it. The National Park system, cellphones, and highways were a help too.

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