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Sometimes, for one reason or the other, the works of scholars get lost. In some cases, they're lost forever. This happened to many books during the fire of the library of Alexandria, for instance.

Luckily, it can also happen that these works resurface after a while. I am interested in these cases. Below, I list five examples:

  1. Oskar Fischer was a Czech neuropathologist. His work on what we now call Alzheimer's disease predates Alois Alzheimer's studies. It was published in a series of papers dating from 1907, 1910, and 1912, and was arguably even more important than his. Being of Jewish descent, he was murdered by the nazis during the Second World War. Moreover, he was part of the Prague School of neuropathology, which at the time was a rival of the Munich School, which consisted of the influential academic Emil Kraepelin, Alzheimer himself, and others. Kraepelin made sure Alzheimer's name was associated with the disease in an important book on psychiatry. These factors contributed to the obscurity of Fischer's contributions. It was only in 2008 when Michel Goedert brought his contributions to light, after visiting the Archives of Charles University in Prague, and having spoken to Fischer's relatives.
  2. When Carl Jung's relationship broke with his close colleague Sigmund Freud in 1913, it had profound consequences on his life. One of them was his work on the Red Book or Liber Novus. He wrote it between 1914 and c. 1930. It records the author's experiments and observations on himself between the years 1913 and 1916. The book was read by just a few people at the time. It was only by 2009 that it was made open to publication by Jung's estate.
  3. In 1885, a new mathematical competition was initiated by editors of the journal Acta Mathematica to honour the 60th birthday of Oscar II, the king of Sweden at the time. The deadline for submission was June 1888. One of the submissions was by Henri Poincaré. He submitted a manuscript in which he proposed a novel way to approach the n-body problem. The judges of the competition had difficulties with understanding the work, however, so after lengthy discussions Poincaré submitted a revised memoir on the 5th of January, 1890. The original manuscript was long thought to be lost, but it turned up again by a lucky coincidence in 2011.
  4. The English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham wrote an essay entitled "Paedarasty (Offences Against One's Self)" around 1785. In this work, he argued for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting homosexual sex. The essay remained unpublished during his lifetime, however, for fear of offending public morality. It was only in 1978 that it was published.
  5. The French-German mathematician Wolfgang Doeblin was an expert in probability theory. When the war broke out in 1939, he refused to be exempted from military service, and was stationed as a telephone operator in Givet, in the Ardennes. While he worked there, he wrote on what are now known as the Chapman-Kolmogorov equations. He incorporated his findings in a letter, which he sealed and sent to the French Academy of Sciences. In the year 2000, the sealed enveloppe was opened.

Please note that this question is specifically aimed at the physical information objects themselves that were lost and found again later. Other questions, including this MO question, are geared towards the rediscovery of the ideas contained within these works. This question is focussed on the books, letters, essays, and other written documents that were once lost but later resurfaced.

Question which works by scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians (re)surfaced after a long time?

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  • $\begingroup$ Slightly related: hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/11397/… $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Feb 18 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ Ramanujan's lost notebook is the most famous recent example I can think of $\endgroup$
    – qwr
    Feb 19 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ There's a cool anecdote about some of Riemann's work resurfacing 200 years later, which is told in Marcus du Sautoy's Music of the primes $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Feb 19 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Stef Could you elaborate on this work? It would be great if I could learn more about this, without having to buy and read a whole book $\endgroup$
    – Max Muller
    Feb 19 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ @MaxMuller I don't have the book with me and I don't remember the specifics unfortunately. What I do remember is that following Riemann's death, a lot of mathematicians were working on his conjecture,and at some point someone thought they had made a great step forward by drawing a link between the Riemann hypothesis and an area of physics. So they asked around who were the experts on this domain and where to find books on the topic, and they were led to a library in Göttingen... Where the librarian gave them one of Riemann's notebooks, which was the most advanced book on this topic. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Feb 19 at 11:59

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A major work of Archimedes, which is usually called "The Method of mechanical theorems" was thought to be lost since the late antiquity till 1906 when it was found as a palimpsest in a convent in Constantinople. Using modern tools it was completely recovered, and now it is published and is available online.

Remark. It was actually lost twice: after its finding in 1906 it remained in possession of the Orthodox church, and in 1922 it went missing because of the evacuation as a result of a war, and for the next 70 years was in private hands, and was not available for study. For the second time it resurfaced in 1998. The full story is described here. It is still privately owned, but the owner permitted a study and reproduction.

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Roger Bacon (1214? - 1294), Opus Majus, by order of Pope Clement, delivered to him in 1267 as a seven-part handwritten manuscript series; resided in the Vatican Library, remained unpublished for more than 500 years.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you Thomas. Do you have any references on the assertion that the book was unpublished for 500 years? I've checken Bacon's wiki biography, but couldn't find any information on it $\endgroup$
    – Max Muller
    Feb 19 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ Ah I see, it was sent to the pope in 1267, and an incomplete edition was published in 1733 by William Boyer: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opus_Majus $\endgroup$
    – Max Muller
    Feb 19 at 9:22
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Not necessarily lost but ignored:

In 1900, Louis Bachelier, working under Henri Poincaré, worked the math of random walks while working in economics. His thesis came before Einstein (1905) and Smoluchowski (1906) on Brownian motion. It also predated the efficient-market hypothesis. It is said that it was Nobel Prize in Economics, Paul Samuelson who rediscovered the thesis in the 1960s after it was first translated to English. From then on his contribution has been largely recognized in retrospective.

Here is another one that is not necessarily a piece of science but still interesting:

Isaac Newton was obsessed with Bible numerology. Thousands of his alchemy and Bible papers were locked for centuries and were finally bought by Southeby's corporation in the 1930. Curiously, economist John Mayard Keynes acquired some of it. In between these papers, a collector named Abraham Yahuda found a Newton's manuscript from 1704 stating (in very obscure prose) something about the end of an era in 2060 AD. Some people have taken this to mean the end of the world, but what Newton really meant is debated.

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Hipparchus' star catalogue, long thought to be lost, was rediscovered in 2022 by Gysembergh, Williams, and Zingg. From Wikipedia:

The catalog was lost to history, until parts of it were rediscovered in 2022 in the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, an ancient palimpsest found in Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai.

See also the popular-scientific articles in Nature (if you have access), the Smithsonian magazine, or LiveScience.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this interesting answer! Just a minor nitpick: the hyperlinks don't all seem to direct to the pages you describe $\endgroup$
    – Max Muller
    Feb 21 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ @MaxMuller Thanks for pointing that out, should be fixed now $\endgroup$ Feb 21 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the reference. This is indeed a great discovery since it helps to solve the great controversy about Ptolemy's star catalog which lasted for centuries! $\endgroup$ Mar 18 at 12:16
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Stef's comment about Riemann's lost work refers to the story behind the Riemann-Siegel formula. Siegel extracted said formula from unpublished work by Riemann that was kept in the Goettingen library but had basically been forgotten. He briefly recounts the historical background at the beginning of his publication from 1932 (JFM 58.1037.07) which has only recently been translated into English.

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  • $\begingroup$ Awesome! Thanks for finding something concrete out of my vague recollections $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Feb 21 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ You've triggered my memory, and I remembered Siegel's name. $\endgroup$
    – Tom Heinzl
    Feb 21 at 17:16
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Gems of "Epicurean Philosophy"

In the case of food, we do not right away believe things that are scarce to be absolutely more pleasant than those which are abundant.

.... for we do [not] refrain from questioning some things, but understanding/remembering others. And may it be evident to us to say true things, as they might have often appeared evident!


Overview:

These were written on Papyri around 79 AD & were stored in a villa in Herculaneum near Mount Vesuvius, lost under volcanic ash, mud & lava until getting excavated in 1750 AD & are getting "deciphered/read/identified" with AI now 2023 AD onwards.
Depending on how we want to count, the "resurfacing" is either 2000 years or 1700 years or 275 years after obtaining the Source Material.


Article Details here:

"Behold! The First Readable Passages From The Charred Scrolls of Vesuvius HUMANS"
[ 09 February 2024 ] By CARLY CASSELLA

So far, about 5 percent of the scroll has been unrolled and read to date. It is not a duplicate of past work, scholars of the Vesuvius Challenge say, but a "never-before-seen text from antiquity."

According to scholars from the Vesuvius Challenge, "the general subject of the text is pleasure, which, properly understood, is the highest good in Epicurean philosophy. In these two snippets from two consecutive columns of the scroll, the author is concerned with whether and how the availability of goods, such as food, can affect the pleasure which they provide."

Classicist Richard Jenko from the University of Michigan thinks the author of the text may be a follower of Epicurus, as someone of that description is thought to have lived and worked at the Villa of Papyri.

Challenge Details here:

The Vesuvius Challenge is a machine learning and computer vision competition that in 2023 cracked the riddle of the Herculanum [sic] Papyri & awarded over $1,000,000 in prizes.


ADDENDUM:

Will we get to know who wrote it? Will we get the whole text? Will there be Scientific texts & Mathematical texts?

It is too early to speculate!

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The most famous in recent times I can think of: mathematician George Andrews's 1976 rediscovery of Ramanujan's Lost Notebook in a box of mathematician G. N. Watson's at Trinity College caused quite a stir. It was likened to "the discovery of Beethoven's Tenth Symphony" by mathematician Bruce Berndt, given Ramanujan's almost mythical status as mathematician genius who died young. Andrews and Berndt have published five books covering the contents and proofs of the theorems, which were written on loose sheets of paper without proofs (that habit contributing to the mythos of Ramanujan as a "divinely-inspired" mathematician). Uncovering Ramanujan’s “Lost” Notebook: An Oral History by Robert P. Schneider gives a more personal story of Ramanujan's work and the story of rediscovery.

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None of Bernhard Bolzano's manuscripts were printed in his lifetime, and only one work was published in 1852, three years after his death (it was praised by G. Cantor). The rest had to wait until 1920s, and an example of a continuous-yet-undiffirentiable function he made up around 1830 was only published in 1930.

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In The Code Breakers, the recently deceased David Kahn describes how Thomas Jefferson developed a wheel cypher substantially more advanced than contemporary processes or instruments before 1800.

For some reason he only used the concepts in a limited way and the existence of the technique and the device to implement it only resurfaced among his papers in the Library of Congress in 1922.

The US Army had just adopted a newly, independently, invented device with the similar concept the same year.

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    $\begingroup$ It's actually not so simple. Jefferson might have known about an earlier Fredrik Gripenstierna's device which is similar in principle. Moreover, the device described by Jefferson (he never claimed he invented it!) certainly was in use in 19th century and not forgotten. It was also reinvented in 1891 before Jefferson's role was known. Proper history of cryptography was indeed only founded by Kahn and is only being developed now, and we are finding out that actually a lot of technology and methods were used but kept secret, including from historians $\endgroup$
    – ain92
    Mar 19 at 10:37
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Evariste Galois springs to mind, again, not so much lost as ignored.

He died at the age of twenty but I believe it took decades for his work to be completely recognised as revolutionary.

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    $\begingroup$ The question is about physical work which was lost not the neglect of ideas. $\endgroup$
    – mdewey
    Feb 20 at 16:36

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