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Sunday, 14 August 2011


Archimedes (287-212BC) came from a wealthy, noble family. His father, Phidias, was an astronomer. According to Plutarch, King Hiero II, the King of Syracuse, was a relative.

Archimedes took little care of his person and often had to be carried by force to the baths. However once he was there, Archimedes would cover himself with oil then use his fingernail to draw mathematical diagrams on his own body. He is said to have discovered the Archimedian principle as he stepped into his bath and perceived the displaced water overflowing.

Nine of his famous treatises on geometry and hydrostatics survive today. Among his known works are On Floating Bodies, On Spirals and The Sand Reckoner. In the latter treatise, Archimedes worked out how many grains of sand were needed to fill the universe.

Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti (1620)

Archimedes purportedly invented the Archimedes screw, which consists of a spiral screw revolving inside a close-fitting cylinder to expel bilge water from creaking ships. The screw that bears his name was one of the earliest kinds of pumps for raising water and it still in use in sewage plants and irrigation ditches in a number of third world countries. However according to The Independent newspaper November 3, 2007, the Archimedes screw "in fact predates Archimedes by about 400 years. Recent digs have established that earlier screws, which are capable of shifting water 'uphill', were used in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the 7th century BC."

Archimedes loved levers. He said of them: "Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the earth. " His pulley systems enabled sailors to use the principle of leverage to lift objects that would otherwise have been too heavy to move.

Archimedes' method of finding mathematical proof to substantiate experiment and observation made him was the father of experimental science. He applied science to everyday life such as discovering the principle of water displacement whilst taking a bath.

In demonstrating that pi is located between 3 10/71 and 3 10/70, Archimedes made a major contribution to the development of mathematics. Not only that, he also proved that the area of a circle was equal to pi multiplied by the square of the radius of the circle thus enabling the volume of a circle to be measured.

Archimedes regarded his demonstration of pi as his greatest achievement. He was so proud of this that that he requested that his tomb should include an inscription of a cylinder and a sphere of the same height and diameter, together with the formula for the ratio of their volumes.

The oldest known puzzle is a dissection of a square mentioned by Archimedes around 250BC. Archimedes asked how many solutions there were. The answer of 536 was only found in 2003.

During the Roman conquest of Sicily, Archimedes placed his gifts at the disposal of the state and constructed a succession of catapult and bow like machines in Syracuse to resist Roman onslaught. He successfully kept the Romans at bay for three years before they took the city.

Legend holds that Archimedes constructed a heat ray (using mirrors) to destroy attacking Roman ships.

When Syracuse was finally taken by the Romans after a two year siege, the Roman General Marcellus sent a Roman soldier with instructions to bring Archimedes to him. The Greek genius was so intent upon a mathematical diagram in his study that he didn't realise Syracuse had been taken by the Romans. When Archimedes saw the soldier he said "wait until I've solved my problem." The enraged soldier thrust his sword into him and the mathematician supposedly mumbled "Noli turbare circulos meos!" ( "Do not disturb my circles!" ) before dying.

In 75BC the Roman orator Cicero found Archimedes' tomb near the Agrigentine gate in Syracuse, in a neglected condition. He had the tomb restored.

Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes by Benjamin West (1805)

(1) Book of Inventions and Discoveries McDonald 1990
(2) Harper's Book of Scientific Anecdotes Berry Books 1989.
(3) The Independent newspaper 3/11/07

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