Thursday, June 07, 2007

Archimedes (287B.C.-212B.C.)

By Richard E. Noble

Eureka! Eureka! (I have found it! I have found it!). According to history and legend, this is what Archimedes went running around the town of Syracuse screaming, one day. On top of that he was supposedly naked as a jay bird. He had been sitting in a public bath when he suddenly realized the phenomena that we call today “specific gravity”.
It seems that his buddy, actually a relative of some sort, king Hiero was having a problem with his jewelers. Hiero had the suspicion that his gold crowns and other golden paraphernalia were being “cut”. They were spiking his golden crowns and jewelry with silver or, even worse, lead instead of 100% genuine gold. The problem was how could he prove his suspicions. Archimedes noticed that when he flopped into the tub at the public bath, water came spilling over the sides. This led him to experiment and, sure enough, he found that different metals displaced different amounts of water. His dunking experiments, comparing gold, silver and the king’s crowns, confirmed the king’s suspicions. You can bet that there were a number of Syracusean jewelers who suddenly found their own bodies displacing less water than they had a week ago after that knowledge became available.
Other tales about Archimedes are even more spectacular. He supposedly defended the town of Syracuse for three years against an armada of Roman ships and soldiers led by a Roman general named Marcellus. He did it all with his scientific genius. He invented new and unimaginable weapons of war. He supposedly invented catapults that could throw a stone weighing a quarter of a ton. He developed “burning mirrors”, huge, shinny, reflective, metal shields, which he used to re-direct the sun’s rays to set the Roman ships in the harbor ablaze. He then mined the harbor via a system of pulleys he had somehow connected to a series of nets and grappling hooks. These contraptions actually lifted the enemy’s ships from the bay and tipped them upside down or smashed them against the rocks lining the shore. In the end, the Romans finally sneaked into the city by land while the whole town was involved in a drunken celebration. The seventy-four year old Archimedes was supposedly involved in scratching out a geometric problem in the dirt when a Roman soldier ran him through. According to legend Archimedes asked the soldier to please delay his sword until he had finished his problem. The soldier obviously did not share Archimedes interests in geometry.
Archimedes was a student of a guy named Canon who was in turn a student of the great Euclid. Euclidean Geometry is what saved Bertrand Russell from suicide. I had a similar experience, though it wasn’t actually Euclidean Geometry that saved me from committing suicide. It was discovering sex that had that same rejuvenating effect upon me. But I consider the learning experience much the same for both me and Bertrand.
Archimedes gave us that famous mathematical symbol known as “pi” You remember? The area of a circle equals the radius squared times pi. That’s the famous number 3.14, that when you asked your high school, math teacher where the hell such a number ever came from, he said; “Just follow the formula and don’t be wasting your peanut brain on such foolish questions. What the heck do you care where it came from as long as it works? Who do you think you are anyway, Albert Einstein for God’s sake?”