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E - 7 : Archimedes: A Man - Not A Myth

Writing about Pythagoras was a challenge. The further I was digging, the more contradicting the sources became and it was impossible to separate the man from the legends.

Aerial view of Ortigia - ancient Syracuse was about 10 times larger and stretched to the hills

Archimedes is different though. He is probably the most distinguished scientist who ever lived in Magna Graecia and his life is relatively well documented. Who does not know the Archimedes’ screw that is used for pumping water to higher levels and is ideal for irrigation? It is still in use today – amazing for a 2’300 years’ old technology.

Renaissance Gravure of Archimedes

Archimedes was born in 287 BC in Syracuse, which was founded in 733 BC by colonists from Corinth. By Archimedes’ time, Syracuse was already independent for three centuries. With 250’000 inhabitants, it was three times as large as its mother-town, twice as big as today’s Syracuse and incredibly rich. Its walls enclosed more than 280 Hectares. Syracuse derived its wealth from agriculture. The mineral rich volcanic soils and the humid climate during winter produced several harvests per year. It is thus no surprise that it could beat back mighty Athens during the Sicilian Expedition in 401 BC, repulse Carthage several times, expanded into Sicily proper, Corsica and Elba and resist Rome for decades.

With a few exceptions, Syracuse was governed by dynasties of kings who had large courts of advising scientists and philosophers. Archimedes was one of them. It is not an exaggeration to call Archimedes the most important mathematician of classical times. With his work on infinitely small numbers he gave us a building block for the modern calculus, found a precise approximation for the number of Pi, was the first to express large numbers with exponentials (his base unit was 10’000 though) and advanced the calculation of surfaces and volumes of spheres and cylinders. There is an excellent article in Wikipedia that summarizes his contribution to modern mathematics well – can’t do a better job. What is most amazing is that Archimedes was able to do all his work without the number 0 which makes our life so simple today. The number zero would reach Europe only 1’300 years after his death.

Burning the Roman Navy with Heat Rays - have a look below

Archimedes was a tremendously practical man who applied his mathematical talent to everyday problems. His calculations helped with the measurement of volumes – one story goes that his precise measurement of the volume of his king’s crown enabled him to detect that the gold had been diluted with silver. He used his understanding of numbers to improve levers and pulleys (very useful for lifting heavy materials during construction) and designed advanced catapults to help defending his hometown against Roman besiegers. We already talked about the screw pump which was most useful for Syracuse’s agriculture. His most famous contribution to Syracuse were his parabolic copper mirrors which he supposedly used to set the Roman Navy on fire. If you want to see how it works, watch “MythBusters – Archimedes Burn-Off”. They tried to replicate it – fun to watch.

Just to spoil it for you – the myth was busted. Archimedes catapult was more successful. The Roman General Marcus Claudius Marcellus was so impressed that he brought them back to Rome. His other order, to capture Archimedes alive, was ignored. He was slaughtered by a Roman soldier when they breached the walls and ravaged the town.

Archimedes directing the defence of Syracuse - fictitious 19th century painting

If there is one person that comes to my mind when I hear the name Syracuse, it is Archimedes. The powerful kings and generals who were so important in their time are already forgotten. But Archimedes contribution to our human development remains.

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