Archimedes – Science Megamind

Following our theme of inventions and scientific waves that change history, today we will be dedicating this spot to a very important man in the history of science: Archimedes. He was a remarkable figure that produced multiple contributions to several fields, particularly mathematics, but also physics, engineering and astronomy. With such a profile, he could simply go amiss. Of course, his achievements and personal story are too great to be discussed in one mere update, and I will have to keep things to a brief overview. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy this look over his life.

As you probably know already, Archimedes was actually born in Syracuse (modern-day Sicily) c.287 BC. His date of birth is not entirely set in stone, neither is his background-some such as Plutarch link him with Hiero II, ruler of the province at the time. In addition, we know due to Archimedes’ own writing that his father was an astronomer named Phidias, as he explains in The Sand Reckoner- the work he produced in order to determine the upper limit of grains of sand that could fit within the universe. In this treaty he not only figured a way of naming large numbers, but also tried to come to terms with the dimensions and measurements of the universe. Archimedes great knowledge and critical thinking seems to have been developed by his studies and education in Alexandria. Not much is known of his career in the egyptian city, but one can assume he was greatly influenced by the work of Euclid and his geometrical treaties complied in The Elements. Much of his scientific developments is preserved in letters that he exchanged with his friend Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who was also based in Alexandria, and seems he was in charge of keeping the library’s collection. However, Archimedes eventually went back to his natal Syracuse, where he spent the rest of his life. In fact, it is said that he played a vital role during the Second Punic War (c.218-c.201 BC) in the defense of the city. In 214 BC Syracuse was under siege from the Roman army for two years and Archimedes contributed with some of his inventions. This seem to include a system of mirrors to concentrate and redirect sunlight in a way that it would ignite the invaders approaching the coat by boat – yes, the death ray! Yet, the conception of such a mechanism is still highly questioned and scholars look upon it with scepticism.

Moreover, Archimedes came up with ingenious use of physics to aid the fortifications of the city. Here, his famous quote “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the world” comes into play. Thus, it seems that this thought of the lever may have been implemented into weaponry and machines such as the catapult and the claw. However, the defense of the city will not prevail and eventually the Romans would take control of it, which would concur in the genius’ death. It is supported that he was engrossed in his calculations and diagram making, when a Roman soldier disturbed him. Archimedes seems to then have told off the soldier, and this one, offended by the mathematicians dismissal, killed him on the spot. However the accounts that shed some light on Archimedes life and death were written nearly a century after his death, so the accuracy or likelihood of this scenario is difficult to determine. Archimedes was buried in Syracuse; his tomb representing his lifetime of devotion, representing his famous diagram (a sphere in a cylinder of the exact height and diameter). It seems that this was what he wished for his burials as he considered his discovery and calculation of the formula for the volume of a sphere was his greatest achievement. Unfortunately, his burial seems to have been forgotten or not kept well, for it is said that it was Cicero himself who years later came to Syracuse and took upon the responsibility to paying homage to the scientist. Apparently he found the poorly kept grave at Agrigentine gate, cleaned it up, and put it back in the place it deserved within its community and the world.

So after a quick bio of our science superhero, it would be appropriate to have a quick over some of his work-other than those that I have mentioned already. Now, the man produced and developed tones of materials and experiments, and I would not be able to go in lots of details regarding these, as you can pretty much write a thesis on Archimedes contributions to science. But I will provide you with a sample of those who I found more interesting.

As we have previously discussed the principle of lever, I guess it is necessary to then address Archimedes’ screw. The story behind the creation of the screw comes from a ship that was overflowed with water leaking from the hull. Therefore, he mastered this hollow tube with a spiral and a handle at one end to drain out the water. I believe this to be a pretty important scientific contribution, as the screw has since not only helped with drainage and pumping systems, but has played a fundamental role in irrigation, which makes it key for agriculture. Moreover, one cannot forget or ignore the famous Archimedes principle: his work relating hydrostatics and that is widely known by the expression Eureka! This story explains how inspiration came to him while having a bath, as he noticed the amount of water displaced overflowing the bath, which was proportional to the amount of his body which was submerged. In this way, he figured out the issue of floating bodies and their specific gravities.  Another noteworthy contribution is the calculation of pi as expressed in The Measurement of the Circle, which are of invaluable importance in the field of geometry and mathematics. Furthermore, Archimedes Method Concerning Mechanical Theorems is something that could be understood as an idealist dream. In this piece, he establishes the process of discovery in mathematics. This was a way for him to formulate his discoveries and the process behind them, in an attempt to develop a method to apply and further the mathematical field. For sure, he did not promote this as the ultimate proof, but rather as a set of guidelines and principles to satisfy scientific curiosity and desire. In a way, it is more a practical philosophic thesis than anything else. Some defend the idea that if the Method would have not gone lost until its rediscovery 1906 in Constantinople (also known as the Archimedes Palimpsest), the Renaissance mathematicians and scientist that he so inspired and followed much of his other work, perhaps would have then be able to fulfil his mathematical dream.

…Of course, I could continue with the others – Archimedes cattle problem, stomachion, the quadrature of the parabola, etc., but if you want to learn some science…Then, be a proper Greek scholar and go find some for yourself. Allow my quick introduction to serve as inspiration for more Archimedes and science to come. And keep an eye on the rest of our updates for the month!


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