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Little is known of his personal life, and the figure shown
here, widely purported to be Archimedes, isn't even him (more
about that later), but Archimedes changed the course of scientific
history. This mathematician, physicist and engineer was born around
287 BC (BCE) in Syracuse (Siracusa), the son of Phidias, an astronomer.
Archimedes was probably related to the Syracusan ruler Hieron
II and his son, Gelon. As a young man, Archimedes studied in Alexandria,
a centre of learning, and spent some time in Greece before returning
to his native Sicily, where his experiments were as practical as they were theoretical. Being something of an astronomer, he invented a
sphere to mimic the movements of celestial bodies. This was described
by Cicero, who saw it.
When Archimedes was born, Greek was still
the scholarly and vernacular language of most of the central and
eastern Mediterranean, but the rapidly expanding Roman Empire
sought to annex Sicily to its dominions, in the process amalgamating
Greek culture with its own. Archimedes was thus called upon to construct
war machines which held back the Romans' siege of Syracuse for
three years. One story says he created an apparatus using convex
lenses and mirrors which concentrated the sun's rays on the enemy
ships and set them afire. This could be legend, but historians
agree that Archimedes would have had the creativity and ability
to devise such a mechanism.
Experimentation yielded "Archimedes' Principle" that
a body immersed in fluid loses as much weight as the weight of
the liquid it displaces. This is a fundamental principle of buoyancy.
Using water displacement in this way, Archimedes demonstrated
that Hieron's crown was not made of solid gold. Realising his
discovery's validity but forgetting to dress before leaving the
pool where he was experimenting, he ran down the streets of Syracuse
naked shouting the now famous phrase "Eureka!" ("I've
"Give me a place to stand and I'll move the Earth."
Archimedes' boast became a fundamental principle of mechanics
that states that a great weight can be moved by a small force
using levers and other means.
The water screw he devised for irrigation is still copied and
used in parts of Egypt, and it was used in ancient and medieval
Sicily as well.
While characteristically deep in thought, Archimedes was killed
by a Roman soldier during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC. Marcellus,
the Roman general, had given an order that Archimedes be spared
at all costs, but the ignorant soldier stabbed him while the genius
was drawing a mathematical figure in the sand.
An accurate likeness of Archimedes is not known. The bust shown
here (and preserved in a Neapolitan museum), believed by many
to have been Archimedes, is actually Archidamos II of Sparta,
who died in 338 BC. It is, however, no more
fanciful an image of Archimedes than many artistic representations
created over the centuries, and has found its way onto coins,
postal stamps and other places.
Not all his recorded work survives, but Archimedes' accomplishments
are legion, and today are known to any student of physics, mathematics,
architecture, geometry or engineering. The "father of integral
calculus," Archimedes invented the compound pulley. In geometry,
Archimedes' method of exhaustion, refining the earlier work of
Euclid and Eudoxus, was so accurate that in some cases it was
equal to integration. The general principle of hydrostatics was
established by Archimedes in his treatise "On Floating Bodies."
His work "The Sand Reckoner" proposes a novel method
of expressing large numbers. "The Method" sets forth
equations and formulae based on logic. "Measurement of the
Circle" establishes the value identified as "pi"
(approximately 3.14) in determing the ratio of circumference to
a diameter within narrow limits. In practice, pi is a constant element
in many mathematical problems.
"On Spirals" establishes proportions concerning the
curve now called the "spiral of Archimedes."
Certain lost works may have yielded a more complete knowledge
of Archimedes' theories. "On Balances and Levers" could
have told us more about "Archimedes' boast" to move the
earth. "Catoptrica" dealt with, among other things,
the refraction of light, and is quoted by Theon of Alexandria.
"On Sphere Making" demonstrated the constructions of
spheres showing the movements of celestial bodies and implies
that Archimedes probably believed the Earth to be round, a theory
expressed in medieval Arab-Norman Sicily, in China and elsewhere.
Many of Archimedes' ideas found their way into Near Eastern
science and engineering. His contributions to geometry greatly
aided the development of ballistics, applied physics and, eventually, space exploration.
He was a Renaissance Man long before the Renaissance.
Carl Sagan (1934-1996), a brilliant cosmologist and astrophysicist who popularized science,
suggested that, had it not been for the wars, social conflicts and other distractions arising from the expansion of the Roman Empire and
then (as it developed) Christianity, the scientific principles introduced by Archimedes and others in the Greek world would
have led to a more rapid development of technology. Moreover, the philosophy of Plato
and other thinkers might have complemented these scientific advances. According to Sagan's theory, the moon landing might have been accomplished
in 1069 instead of 1969, with the astronauts speaking classical Greek.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.