The Great Archimedes

By MARIO GEYMONAT, Translated by R. Alden Smith

The Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes, like so many figuresfrom the ancient world, comes down to us not as a fully-fledged human being butas the hero of a handful of exemplary anecdotes. In his brief, accessible book The Great Archimedes, the Italian classicist Mario Geymonat draws onthese quasi-legends, showing that they add up to a portrait of Archimedes asthe original absent-minded professor. According to Plutarch, for instance, Archimedeswas so engrossed in mathematical speculations that “he kept forgetting toeat and to care for his body.” Even when his servants dragged him to thebathroom to wash, “he often drew a picture of some geometric figures inthe ashes from the heater, and as soon as they had smeared him with oil, hetraced some lines on his own limbs with his finger.”

There’s no way of knowing if this is true, of course, but the magnitudeof Archimedes’s achievements makes it easy to believe that he never stoppedcalculating. Geymonat offers brief introductions to his major treatises, someof which survive only in fragments or in Latin or Arabic translation.Archimedes calculated the value of pi to three decimal places, established thatthe shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and showed how tomeasure the surface area and volume of a sphere. In a more fanciful work, The Sand Reckoner, he came up with anestimate of how many grains of sand it would take to fill the known universe—hisanswer was “the number we should represent [in Arabic numerals] by 1followed by 80,000 million million” zeroes.

But while Archimedes is said to have preferred such abstract theorizing,he was also capable of amazing feats of engineering. Working on a system oflevers and pulleys for launching an enormous ship, he is supposed to havedeclared, “Give me a lever long enough and I will move the world.”Most famously, he came up with the principle of displacement while lying in thebath, prompting him to jump out and cry “Eureka, I have found it.” It’sonly a little disillusioning to learn that he applied this epic discovery forthe purpose of figuring out whether the ruler of Syracuse had beenshort-changed, by having his solid-gold crown adulterated with silver.

In the end, Archimedes’s unworldliness is said to have cost him hislife. In 212 BC, when Syracuse was conquered by the Romans, the victoriousgeneral, Claudius Marcellus, “made a public declaration that whoever savedthe scientist’s life would garner as much glory for saving him as Marcellushimself had for being the conqueror of Syracuse.” True to form, even inthe chaos of the city’s fall, Archimedes was absorbed in sketching geometricalfigures in the dirt with a stick. When a Roman soldier came upon him and askedwho he was, he was so distracted that—in the words of Valerius Maximus—he “couldnot say his own name but, protecting the design traced in the dust with hishands, said, ‘Please, do not disturb this.’ Thus, having given the impressionof disregarding the superiority of his conqueror, Archimedes was beheaded, sothat he mingled the features of his formula with his blood.”

It all sounds a little too symbolic to be true—the man of sciencedestroyed by an ignorant world. As Geymonat says, “the historicalArchimedes [has been] tainted by or even blended with mythical characters,”so that he seems more like a tutelary spirit of mathematics than a scientistlike Isaac Newton. The Great Archimedesreminds us that, as impressive as his legend might be, his actual achievementsare more amazing still.


Footnotes:

“‘I’ is another,” the poet Rimbaud said long ago. Now evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban claims to have the proof: in Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (Princeton), he argues that the human mind developed as a collection of “modules,” making it impossible for us ever to have a single identity, or to be totally consistent in our feelings, values, and behavior.

You can’t make sense of the news from the Middle East without some understanding of the ancient division between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest, by Hamid Dabashi (Harvard), offers a comprehensive new history of Shi’ite theology, history, and politics, down to the current conflict in Iraq.