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By THEODORE MORRISON HOMA
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Theodore Morrison Homa
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Chapter OneThe Translation
Frank Hayhurst was a tall, thin, well-groomed, prematurely gray-haired Ivy League type, who wore a monogrammed starched white lab coat. His pale, unblemished complexion told of long hours indoors protected from sunlight working his subbasement lab. He usually spent his time peering over his horn-rimmed bifocals as he delivered long, dry but brilliant analyses of his current science projects to his staff—who were quite literally his subjects in an academic feudal system. He had mastered them like servants during his long career. On a late spring day in his basement offices of the Syracuse University physics department, he abruptly called out for his protégé. "Finn, you're going to jump for joy when you see this."
Finn McGee darted out of his lab and into the older man's private office, eagerly waiting for what promised to be good news. Since returning to academia after a brief but fruitful medical career, which seemed like ages ago, Finn had worked alongside Hayhurst, and he enjoyed sharing moments of discovery with the department head. "Frank, you called me?" McGee queried as the smiling professor reached out toward him over his compulsively neat desk and handed him a large manila envelope heavily laden with folded letters and brochures.
"You made it, Finn. You are the nominee!" Hayhurst said with honest praise for his handpicked colleague.
McGee cracked a smile that split his dimples—making him, for a moment, look like a much younger man, almost passable as one of his students—as he read the enclosed letter. Raising his hand in the gesture of a high five at his mentor and doing a half bow in appreciation, he gave the appearance of a squire just knighted saluting his king.
McGee suddenly turned gravely serious. "Frank, I don't think I have time to pack and write a speech. Are you coming with me? Maybe you could help me with the formalities of writing something to tell the crowd?"
"Just tell them who you are, Finn, and enjoy the glory. Speech writing is for politicians. We are scientists. I'm sure you can get along without me on this trip. I have some pressing affairs coming up; you will have to go alone."
Finn was tough enough to go alone, and he knew it. He was actually relieved that Hayhurst was not coming to steal his thunder. He would also welcome the quiet time on the drive to Washington, DC. His mind wandered as he walked back into his own office to plan the trip.
He gazed at the replica of the translation he had fashioned. Framed in gold leaf on black wood and surrounded by shades of crimson matting, the parchment copy hung proudly on his office wall and was accompanied by the original photo. The writing was a duplicate of an ancient artifact he had discovered—and a pivotal moment in his academic pursuits. He stared at it for a long time and remembered.
* * *
"Why?" was the only question Finn McGee ever seemed to ask in school. His father taught him the value of hard work. He learned to love by his mother's example, and he learned faith from his parish priest, who spent years as a close counselor when his mother died of breast cancer. After his wife's death, Finn's father was never able to rise above his own melancholy, and Finn was left alone.
In school, he was the scourge of the end-of-class bell. Always the kid with his hand in the air asking questions, he grew intellectually and became a medical doctor with a passion for understanding the causes of all things.
More than one person witnessed Finn solving the Rubik's Cube within five minutes of first holding the puzzle in his hand. An embellishment to the story, possibly added by later colleagues, was that he spent most of that five minutes studying the position of the squares and very little time moving them about until they found their way into perfect alignment in his hands.
Finn would preach that as the major scientists throughout history had believed, there was indeed a Universal Theory or a Grand Design that just about tied all knowledge into some ultrahuman, probably divine, equation. He believed and acted upon the belief that mankind was given the means to learn about the physical world in order to learn what was beyond the palpable and obvious order of existence.
Exploring first an excellent career in medicine, Finn was driven to look beyond the mysteries of human life, and he turned himself over to the abstract world of math and physics. There he was, pulled, as if by a rope, deeper into the understanding of the physical world than most men have gone in history. He'd once thought it was all within his grasp.
At least, that's what he believed, until he found a scroll written in ancient Greek in an ancient monastery ruin. His very presence at that archeological site was further exploration of the world of invention and geometry, authored by the famous Greek natural philosopher Archimedes.
Wanting to possess the scroll and learn from it, he used his Nikon camera, which he was never without, to photograph each page, meticulously arranging the lighting for legibility.
* * *
Finn smiled again at the reverie as he broke from his trance. The urgency of getting organized seemed overwhelming. He sat at his desk and began to make a list. Lists were his special way of organizing stressful problems. He jotted a few notes to remind himself what message he wanted to deliver at the award ceremony. Claire's photo was on the corner of his desk. She forever smiled back from that isolated moment, frozen in time. He would never forget her. He had shared his life, work, and obsessions with the love of his life, even though he regretted not giving her more time.
Time is a thief, he thought, sinking back into memories of the scroll.
* * *
Finn had spent countless hours learning ancient Greek in order to facilitate the correct translation of the words. He'd learned that the words had been written there by the scribe, who wrote at the behest of a Roman general who had witnessed the inventions of Archimedes.
Months ran into years, when the translation lent itself to the scrutiny of many students in attempts at deciphering a key passage. Finn remembered the day as if it were yesterday, the day the meaning of the words was unveiled.
After triple-checking, he ran down the hallway of the college language department to ask another scholar for some help, compelled to make certain he reveled in discovery.
The passage that grabbed Finn and connected him by a strong link to the past, back to the Second Punic War, read in translation:
Boulders flew over the city wall and fell like hail, striking death upon the Roman legions and sinking many ships. The missiles moved at great speeds, with no obvious source of propulsion. The Romans had known about Archimedes' war machines but had never expected magic!
Finn knew when he read it that it had nothing to do with magic.
Chapter TwoThe School Of Athens
National Academy of Sciences June 2010, Washington, DC
Multiple SUVs in standard government black with darkened windows suddenly surrounded the National Academy of Sciences building in silence, awaiting further orders. Radio chatter between vehicles consisted of men verifying their positions and reporting their areas secure. Then came the general's command: "I have verification. Our target is inside the building. Don't make a scene when you apprehend him. This is a matter of top secret priority."
* * *
Indoors, the ceremony was under way. Applause filled the room as the chairwoman of the National Academy of Sciences announced the evening's speaker and guest master of ceremonies, classical Greek historian Dr. Orestes Arcunalotis. "Dr. Arcunalotis," the chairwoman continued, "has the exclusive honor tonight to introduce the winner of the John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science. This year the award is targeted for achievement in the field of physics." Turning to shake hands with the honored guest, she delivered to him the gavel, murmurs of applause again rippling through the sea of more than fifteen hundred in attendance.
Dr. Arcunalotis held up the business end of the small wooden mallet, and without a rap, the room quieted. Dressed in a gray wool suit with white shirt and red bow tie, he stood at the podium with a boyish crop of jet-black hair tossed carelessly down on his brow. Grinning from ear to ear, leaving barely any room for his deep dimples, he peered down through his spectacles, over his black bushy mustache, at his scattered notes. Pausing to soak in the adulation of the audience, he looked at them over his reading glasses, waved the gavel again, and said with self-assurance, "My friends all call me Orestes." Laughter warmed the amphitheater, and he began to speak impeccable English with a British accent acquired at Cambridge.
"I have been chosen to present a prestigious award to an outstanding scientist. He is a man of a multitude of achievements, a true renaissance man. His curriculum vitae reads like a university catalogue: undergraduate degrees; BS in biochemistry and simultaneously a BA in classical history with minors in Greek and Latin from Fordham University magna cum laude; doctor of medicine from Saint Louis University School of Medicine; postgraduate clinical training at Northwestern University, followed by board certification in internal medicine. That was just the beginning. His mind wandered to his favorite passions, and he was enrolled in the University of Syracuse, where four years of critical study earned him a PhD in the physics of alternate geometry and a doctorate in mathematics by acclamation for his self-developed skill in advanced theoretical math and physics. This illustrious career was then capped by his nomination to the new Albert Einstein chair in the Department of Theoretical Physics at the University of Syracuse, where he has endeavored for the past several years to advance the fields of natural science. Our honoree shares an obsession with me, and I would like to introduce him by sharing with you its historical roots. Be patient with me as I turn down the lights and project my only slide on the screen.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Dr. Arcunalotis said a moment later, beaming as the slide appeared on the screen behind him, "I show you a slide of the fresco painted on one wall in the Stanze di Raffaello. This room devoted to paintings by Raphael is located in the Palace of the Vatican. The fresco was completed five hundred years ago, in 1510 AD. Known to the world as The School of Athens since the seventeenth century, when it was given that name in a tourist guidebook, the original title given to this and other frescos in the same room in the museum was Causarum Cognitio, meaning Knowledge of Causes. They represented a blending of the knowledge passed down from the Greek civilization with the fundamental philosophy and theology of the Roman Christian era. Furthermore, the fact that Raphael painted this fresco is considered evidence that he was highly educated, and that the awareness of Greek science and philosophy was well known during the High Renaissance period."
Arcunalotis pointed his laser at the slide, indicating the central figures. "Scholars have given us to believe that these two walking in a peripatetic manner through the Lyceum are Plato and Aristotle. More controversial, but consistent with my studies and beliefs, the figure in the right lower corner of the fresco is Archimedes. Some scholars claim that he is portrayed with the face of Euclid, but the fact that he is represented bending over a slate with geometric symbols inscribed on it is consistent with that which we know about Archimedes' death. For Archimedes to be portrayed in this fresco elevates the importance of his work and contributions to Greek science."
"We know that Archimedes' grave marker is decorated with these very symbols. Arcunalotis sipped water from a glass on the podium while searching his notes. "Aggh-ha," he muttered in not-so-perfect English to himself. "Yes, here it is." Looking up from his notes at the audience, he declared in perfect Cambridge English, "Alfred North Whitehead wrote that in An Introduction to Mathematics."
Regaining control of the podium, he continued. "The death of Archimedes by the hands of a Roman soldier is symbolical of a world change of the first magnitude: the Greeks, with their love of abstract science, were superseded in the leadership of the European world by the practical Romans. In one of his novels, Lord Beaconsfield—Benjamin Disraeli—has defined a practical man as a man who practices the errors of his forefathers. The Romans were a great race, but they were cursed with sterility, which waits upon practicality. They did not improve upon the knowledge of their forefathers, and all their advances were confined to the minor technical details of engineering. The Romans were not dreamers enough to arrive at new points of view. Their understanding of the world could not give them a more fundamental control over the forces of nature. No Roman lost his life because he was absorbed in the contemplation of a mathematical diagram."
Once more, Arcunalotis paused for effect. He morphed his face into the image of academic authority, and twirling his mustache with the laser pen, he surveyed the reaction of the crowd. When he was confident of their attention, he executed his final point flawlessly.
"The reaction of Commander Marcus Marcellus to the death of Archimedes was utter grief at the loss of opportunity. Marcellus may have been the exception to the practical Roman because he actually saw what the physicist Archimedes was able to accomplish just in the construction of 'machines' to prevent the conquering of Syracuse. He was so much affected that he chose to give Archimedes the funeral of a Roman citizen and ordered placed on the marker for his tomb the symbols represented in this fresco.
"When I ponder the wonders that Archimedes may have understood about nature, it brings to mind another famous quotation from Archimedes himself: 'If I have somewhere to stand, I will move the whole earth.'
"This background information brings me to my purpose tonight. I wish to introduce to you the one scientist who shares my personal curiosity about Archimedes. Though his perspective is on the science Archimedes understood but our world has never learned, and mine is about the man himself, and his place in Greek civilization, we pull at the same threads of hidden knowledge. Without further delay, ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you the nominee for the Albert Einstein chair at the University of Syracuse and the winner of the 2010 John J. Carty Award for Advancement in Science Dr. Finbar J. McGee!"
Curtains parted, and the sandy-haired physicist stepped into the light and gaze of the applauding crowd. Grasping the hand of Dr. Acunalotis in exuberant gratitude, he engaged in personal conversation. Concluding this private dialogue, he turned to the audience, grinning with a broad smile, and leaned into the microphone at the podium. "My friends all call me Finn," was his self-introduction. The crowd predictably cheered and laughed at his personal declaration, finally settling into anticipatory silence until his speech commenced.
Precisely arranging his notes in a perfect stack, taking measure of them one last time, he held up a shiny metal triangle the size of his hand. He waved it ceremoniously about the podium, reflecting the bright lights from its surface to the watching eyes of his audience and spoke.
"Ladies and gentleman, I accept your nomination and award with humility and purpose." Laying the triangle down on his notes, he unbuttoned his blue suit coat and loosened his tie. "Ever since I was a boy in grammar school, I played with mathematics and geometry as though they were my toys. I filled my life with geometric symbols and pondered the abstract notions of the world. As my education advanced, so did my curiosity. Finding little solace in working simple problems, I looked diligently for tougher and even unsolved problems. Not content with just the science, I broadened my research into the historical roots of mathematics and physics. For this, I needed additional skills in language rather than science. After stumbling across an incomplete biography of Archimedes of Syracuse, my curiosity did evolve into obsession."
Professor McGee knew he had hypnotized the audience. He enjoyed their attention and knew Hayhurst had been right. All he needed to do was be himself. He found his own pace and soaked in their adulation. When the moment was right for drama, his eyes danced as he focused on the crowd and delivered his message.
"I studied his methods and his inventions with relentless abandon, and I never wanting to do anything more than solve the puzzles he pondered himself. I discovered so many amazing and even terrifying principles.
Excerpted from ARCHIMEDES' CLAW by THEODORE MORRISON HOMA Copyright © 2011 by Theodore Morrison Homa . Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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