Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes

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Overview

The extraordinary genius of Archimedes—scientist, mathematician, engineer, and showman.

Many of us know little about Archimedes other than his “Eureka” exclamation upon discovering that he could immerse an object in a full tub of water and measure the spillage to determine the object’s volume. That simple observation helped establish the key principles of buoyancy that govern the flotation of hot-air balloons, boats, and denizens of the sea. Archimedes had a profound impact on the development of mathematics and science: from square roots to the stability of ships; number systems to levers; the value of pi to the size of the universe. Yet this same cerebral man developed machines of war that held at bay the greatest army of antiquity. Ironically, Archimedes’ reputation swelled to mythic proportions in the ancient world for his feats of engineering: the hand-cranked irrigation device—commonly known as “Archimedes’ screw”—and his ingenuous use of levers, pulleys, and ropes to launch, single-handedly, a fully laden ship!

His rediscovered treatises guided nascent thinkers out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. Indeed, Archimedes’ cumulative record of achievement places him among the exalted ranks of Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. Eureka Man brings to life for general readers the genius of Archimedes, offering succinct and understandable explanations of some of his amazing discoveries and innovations.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Although you may not have ever thought you needed to read a book about Archimedes, this book might leave you wondering how you got through life thus far without reading one. In this, lies Hirshfeld's rare talent. And if you have been looking for such a book, this one should have you leaping from your bathtub and heading for the door, proclaiming "Eureka — I have found it." "—Metro West Daily News

“Alan Hirshfeld [cuts] through the centuries of hype surrounding this ancient genius. Against the vivid backdrop of a city under Roman siege, we're told what little is known of the life of Archimedes, and of the futuristic war machines he invented at his king's behest, which for years kept the invaders at bay. Hirshfeld explains Archimedes's mathematical achievements, from calculating pi to developing the beginnings of calculus, and traces the survival of key copies of his work through history as poetically as if they were travellers sailing to port over a stormy sea. A charming introduction to the life and legacy of an extraordinary man.”—New Scientist

“An insightful and engaging biography of the man of the legendary exclaim. To my surprise, Archimedes was a Newton, Edison, General Patton, and Einstein, all rolled into one: the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Alan Hirshfield provides both a delightful romp through this great man's mathematical proofs and a thrilling tale of the centuries-long search for Archimedes' greatest manuscript. We are introduced to a genius well worth knowing."—Marcia Bartusiak, author of The Day We Found the Universe and adjunct professor of science writing at MIT

“Naked Archimedes running down the street shouting ‘Eureka!’ It's an image to chuckle over and cherish. But, oh my, there is so much more to fascinate in the tale of this astonishing man. Alan Hirshfeld has merged storytelling and science in a wonderful book that even includes a modern discovery with twists and turns of intrigue.”—Joy Hakim, author of The Story of Science and A History of US

“Alan Hirshfeld has given us a gripping biography of Archimedes, one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Even more exciting, he shows us how scholars resurrect from obscurity a person who has been dead for 2,200 years, piecing together a dramatic life from fragments of remembrance.”—Chet Raymo, author of The Path

“For this account of one of antiquity’s most renowned mathematicians, Hirshfeld combines three elements: a biography, accessible presentations of several mathematical proofs, and a narrative of the recent recovery of long-lost texts. The last, detailed in The Archimedes Codex (2007), by Reviel Netz and William Noel, loses no intellectual drama in Hirshfeld’s briefer treatment, and his work’s clarity in the biography and math departments confirms the facility for popular science that Hirshfeld displayed in Parallax (2001) and The Electric Life of Michael Faraday (2006)… And whether or not a naked Archimedes really ran around yelling ‘Eureka,’ the story’s too good, among others, to omit from Hirshfeld’s fine portrayal.”— Booklist

“University of Massachusetts Dartmouth science prof Hirshfeld offers a lively look at the work underlying Archimedes’ renown… Science fans will find this a quick read, and readers interested in the transmission of ancient manuscripts will be fascinated by Hirshfeld’s account of the palimpsest.” —Publishers Weekly

“Thoroughly enjoyable look at the tumultuous life and resounding influence of a genius of antiquity”—Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
One of the most famous scientists of antiquity, Archimedes was renowned for his wizardry in pure mathematics as well as for applied science, building defensive devices that helped ancient Syracuse temporarily hold off a Roman assault.University of Massachusetts Dartmouth science prof Hirshfeld (The Electric Life of Michael Faraday) offers a lively look at the work underlying Archimedes' renown. The second part of the book shifts gears to trace the fortunes of the so-called Archimedes Palimpsest, a parchment with a Byzantine-era religious work written over an ancient text by Archimedes. Since it was rediscovered in the early 1900s, scientists have used ultraviolet and X-ray scanning techniques to identify the original underlying works, long believed lost, and uncover the startling fact that Archimedes discovered the calculus almost 2,000 years before Newton and Leibniz. Science fans will find this a quick read, and readers interested in the transmission of ancient manuscripts will be fascinated by Hirshfeld's account of the palimpsest (a tale also recounted in 2007's The Archimedes Codex). 8 pages of color illus., 15 b&w illus. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
Thoroughly enjoyable look at the tumultuous life and resounding influence of a genius of antiquity. A mathematician, engineer, military strategist and physicist, Archimedes (287-212 BCE) is famous for his discovery of the principle of buoyancy. More importantly, he is renowned for his war-time defense stratagems against the Romans, which were based on physics, geometry and more than a bit of cunning. His unparalleled output includes deducing the numerical value of pi; devising the means to compute many complex geometric formulas including the surface area and volume of a sphere; and establishing the proof of the law of the lever. Hirshfeld (Physics and Astronomy/Univ. of Massachusetts, Dartmouth; The Electric Life of Michael Faraday, 2006, etc.) writes that Archimedes "exemplifies the human species' utmost reach as scientific thinker and mechanic, combining the footloose imagination of a da Vinci, the quantitative mastery of a Gauss, and the methodical inventiveness of an Edison." The fact that much of his edifice was destroyed in antiquity has plagued historians for centuries, and the discovery of an ancient codex-now called the Archimedes Palimpsest-was a spectacular boon to modern understanding of Archimedes's mathematical accomplishments. Hirshfeld devotes the second half of the book to the adventures of the palimpsest as it traversed the globe, detailing how original Archimedean treatises were bleached, cut and reused for a Byzantine-era Christian liturgical manual. It wasn't until 1906 that a Danish professor recognized the ancient Greek writing that still existed in faded ink beneath the religious text, which proved that, incredibly, Archimedes "anticipated by some two thousandyears Europe's most fertile mathematical minds."Hirshfeld writes clearly and with enthusiasm, navigating even the occasional dense mathematical concept with easy-to-understand language and accompanying diagrams.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802716187
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Hirshfeld is a professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and an associate of the Harvard College Observatory. He is the author of The Electric Life of Michael Faraday and Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Eureka Man

The Life and Legacy of Archimedes
By Alan Hirshfeld

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2009 Alan Hirshfeld
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1618-7


Chapter One

THE ESSENTIAL ARCHIMEDES

There was more imagination in the head of Archimedes than there was in that of Homer. —Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

The citizens of ancient Syracuse would have recognized the man who is said to have bustled past them naked and dripping and shouting, "Eureka!" (I have found it!). It was Archimedes, the celebrated mathematician, scientist, inventor, and confidant of the king. That Archimedes seemed oblivious to his own nakedness and to onlookers' bemused stares was perhaps only mildly scandalous, given his reputation for eccentricity. To residents of this long-ago Sicilian city-state, Archimedes had always occupied an enchanted middle ground: one foot planted squarely in the world of men, the other dancing to some private muse of nature.

Archimedes was naked and wet because, only moments earlier, he had purportedly jumped from his bath, elated at his flash of insight into a problem he had been puzzling over. The Syracusan king, Hieron II, had given the royal metalsmith a specific weight of gold to be fashioned into a splendid wreathlike crown. Now the king suspected that the completed crown, destined to adorn the statue of a deity, had been cut with less valuable silver and that the smith had pocketed the unused gold. Hieron directed Archimedes to establish the crown's makeup without sampling or defacing it in any way.

Archimedes knew that gold is more dense than silver. So if a certain weight of silver had been substituted for the same weight of gold, the crown would occupy a larger space than an identical one of pure gold. But how does one measure the volume of an irregular crown?

Stepping into his brimful bath, as legend tells it, Archimedes noticed water splashing over the rim. The more of him that was immersed, the more water overflowed. Eureka! The mundane had become momentous; to find the crown's volume, Archimedes is said to have realized, all he had to do was immerse the crown in a vessel full of water and measure the spillage. Doing so later, he informed Hieron that the crown was indeed too large for the original weight of gold. The smith was guilty. Primitive scientific deduction and measurement had one of its earliest successes. The true "gold," however, lay in Archimedes' broader conclusions; he established the key principles of buoyancy that govern the flotation of hot-air balloons, ships, and denizens of the sea. And his Eureka! became the joyous expletive that erupts whenever an experiment yields a sublime result or disparate ideas cohere into a beautiful theory.

This homely incident and its technical spinoff are the merest glimmer of the manifold genius of Archimedes and the profound impact he had on the development of mathematics and science. Archimedes' interests ranged widely: from square roots to irrigation devices; planetariums to the stability of ships; polyhedra to pulleys; number systems to levers; the value of the mathematical constant ITLπITL to the size of the universe. Yet this same cerebral man, when called upon by his king, developed machines of war so fearsome, they might have sprung from a devil's darkest imagination—weapons that held at bay the greatest army of antiquity. Ironically, it was for his feats of engineering, not for his beloved mathematics and science, that Archimedes' reputation swelled to mythic proportions in the ancient world. The Roman statesman-philosopher Cicero claimed that Archimedes possessed a genius greater than one would imagine possible for a human being.

Archimedes is universally acknowledged to have been the most proficient mathematician of antiquity and among the top mathematicians of all time, on par with the likes of Isaac Newton and Carl Friedrich Gauss. Archimedes derived the mathematical properties of parabolas, spirals, and polyhedra. He conjured geometric solids with t ongue-twister names like truncated cuboctahedron and rhombicosidodecahedron, the latter an implausible sixty-two-sided conflation of abutting triangles, squares, and pentagons. He developed new ways to compute square roots, lengths of arcs, and volumes of spheres, cylinders, and cones. For the last, he used an elementary form of calculus almost two millennia before its full introduction by Newton and Leibniz. No wonder Galileo called him superhuman.

Although pure mathematics was his greatest joy, Archimedes also made seminal contributions to science. His center-of-gravity concept, now a staple of freshman physics, was among the earliest abstractions of physical objects for the purpose of analyzing nature. He solved previously intractable problems in mechanics by mathematically collapsing real objects into imaginary points of mass. Indeed, Archimedes pioneered the union of mathematics and physics that was to become a hallmark of modern scientific analysis. He is also reported to have studied optics and written a treatise on mirror reflection (now lost). And, of course, his Eureka! work on buoyancy was unmatched in the ancient world.

When pressed, Archimedes could be remarkably adept at invention. The hand-cranked irrigation device, commonly known as the Archimedes screw, may have been developed by him in his youth while studying at Alexandria in Egypt. There are also tantalizing reports that he built a working mechanical model of the solar system, one of the first planetariums, and designed both a steam-powered cannon and a compressed-air organ. He was also a genius in the use of levers and pulleys, boasting to King Hieron, "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth." As proof of his assertion, Archimedes contrived to launch, single-handedly, a fully laden ship using what may have been a compound system of ropes and pulleys. Astounded, King Hieron proclaimed to the Syracusan citizenry, "From this day forth Archimedes is to be believed in everything he may say."

The king's declaration proved to be a harbinger of what was to come. Archimedes' treatises, rediscovered after a thousand years of collective amnesia in Eusope, helped guide nascent thinkers out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. Indeed, Archimedes' cumulative record of achievement—both in breadth and s ophistication—places him among the exalted ranks of Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein. When contemporaries searched for a suitable honorific for the fifteenth-century architect Filippo Brunelleschi, they identified him not with his architectural forefather Vitruvius but with Archimedes. Galileo invokes Archimedes' name over a hundred times in his works. The seventeenth-century polymath Robert Hooke dubbed his innovative telescope the Archimedean Engine. And, like a highbrow graffiti artist, the teenage Isaac Newton scratched Archimedes' geometric diagrams on the wall of his school.

The name Archimedes graces computer programs, Web sites, a screw-shaped marine fossil (as well as the corkscrew in my kitchen), a short story by Aldous Huxley, an essay by Mark Twain, and, in a double dose of wisdom-by-association, Merlyn's pet owl in T. H. White's Arthurian tale The Sword in the Stone. Archimedes' profile is seen on the Fields Medal, the "Nobel Prize" of mathematics. And the ancient sage's tendency to become lost in cogitation may be the cultural root of characters such as Jerry Lewis's "Absent-Minded Professor" and Hubert Farnsworth in the animated television series Futurama.

Today there are Eureka vacuum cleaners, camping tents, and (naturally) bathtub curtains. California's motto is Eureka, as is the name of a prose poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Over the ages, Archimedes' vaunted lever has been exerted in the name of philosophy (Rene Descartes), patriotism (Thomas Paine), international relations (Thomas Jefferson), history (Honore de Balzac), human fallibility (Franz Kafka), revolution (Leon Trotsky), political theory (Hannah Arendt), media influence (Marshall McLuhan), world peace (John F. Kennedy), and racial justice (Robert Kennedy). The Archimedean lever has likewise infiltrated literary works, such as Don Juan, The Three Musketeers, Dracula, and Shelley's philosophical poem "Queen Mab."

Archimedes floats through our collective consciousness: a forebear of modern ideas, a symbol of the intellectual heights to which the human species can rise. His ingenuity has inspired generations of thinkers in his own time, during the Renaissance, and up through the present day. He comes to us not merely as a name but as a flesh-and-blood character, swayed by the passions and perplexities of genius. His is a larger-than-life story, no doubt burnished by mythmakers who sought to elevate him beyond his manifold accomplishments.

Who, then, was Archimedes? If the barriers of time, language, and culture were magically breached, would Archimedes be the sprightly, avuncular intellectual—like a favorite teacher, perhaps—eager to involve us in his latest mathematical escapade? Or would he be withdrawn and cerebral, occupying some elevated plane of existence, friend only to his invisible muse? Was he roused by life's joys and tribulations or ever lost in blissful cogitation? Where does Archimedes-the-man end and Archimedes-the-myth begin? All that we have to paint the portrait of the true Archimedes are secondhand or thirdhand accounts, set down decades or centuries after his death. And, for additional clues about his personality, we have his own writings—or, at least, imperfect copies of copies of copies of his original writings. Surely, the temptation to bathe an overachiever like Archimedes in a heroic light proved irresistible to those charged with transcribing the great man's words and writing his biography.

Ancient historians are notoriously unreliable, both as reporters of events and as portrayers of character. No one can say for sure whether Archimedes truly hopped from his bath and shouted Eureka!—much less whether he preferred solitude over society, was an early riser, or had a predilection for oysters. Most ancient biographers embellished freely, amplifying in equal measure the affirmative aspects of those they admired and the villainous aspects of those they despised. The lives of noteworthy people were more than mere strings of occurrences; they were archetypes to be emulated or avoided. The first-century Greek biographer Plutarch, for example, cast his retrospective eye on a wide array of historical figures. His ranging account of the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus indirectly illuminates Archimedes; this is how we know of Archimedes' supposed "high spirit," his fantastic war machines, his favor of abstract mathematics over "sordid and ignoble" engineering, and the purported circumstances of his death. But Plutarch was not a biographer in the modern sense as much as a moral essayist. His writings are biographical analyses of character: how events shape character, how character shapes events. To his credit, Plutarch quotes liberally from lost works of his predecessors, providing a multidimensional perspective (still woefully incomplete) on his biographical subjects.

Virtually nothing is known about Archimedes' formative years. Even the name Archimedes—literally, "Master of Thought"—may be a pseudonym bestowed upon the man by an admirer. Eutocius, who wrote about mathematics and astronomy during the sixth century A.D., refers to an Archimedean biography by one Heracleides, but that account is nowhere to be found. The twelfth-century Byzantine historian Joannes Tzetzes tells us, without evidence, that Archimedes was seventy-five years old when he died at the hands of the Romans during the siege of Syracuse in 212 B.C. That puts Archimedes' birth close to 287 B.C. Archimedes himself mentions his father, Phidias, within the text of The Sand-Reckoner, an expansive thought experiment on the size of the universe. Of Phidias, an astronomer, we know only that he estimated the relative sizes of the Sun and the Moon.

Whether Archimedes was raised in modest or privileged circumstances is uncertain. His father's name, Phidias, derives from that of the great sculptor of the Parthenon and was common among the artisan class. Certainly no elite family would have named a child Phidias. Cicero, a century and a half after Archimedes' death, describes his Greek predecessor as humilem homunculum—a humble little man—which could just as well refer to Archimedes' personal style or oratory talents as to his economic status. The first-century Roman poet Silius Italicus reports in his epic chronicle of the Second Punic War that Archimedes was nudus opum—destitute of means. Given Archimedes' professed devotion to his studies, mathematical accomplishment might have been all the remuneration he sought. Pursuit of the lavish life, were it even an option, would have diminished the productivity that is evident in the historical record. Presumably, Archimedes subsisted on some form of patronage, perhaps a royal retainer, in exchange for his unique civic services to Syracuse.

Plutarch intimates that Archimedes was a close friend, if not kin, of the Syracusan King Hieron II, who himself was a nobleman's s on—albeit an illegitimate one. Perhaps the protomathematician and protowarrior-monarch knew each other in their youth and maintained the bond through their respective ascendancies. Or maybe their lives converged only during adulthood, in a long-running give-and-take of mutual self-preservation: Hieron's political wiles kept Syracuse at peace, while Archimedes' military inventions strengthened the city's defenses against onslaught.

A historical reference that Archimedes studied under Plato is patently false; although Plato did visit Syracuse a number of times, he died sixty years before Archimedes was born. And, no, Archimedes was not the son of the great mathematician Pythagoras, as one bygone commentator claimed; the pair were centuries and oceans apart. But there is no doubt that the young Archimedes did study mathematics with the successors of Euclid at Alexandria, in northern Egypt. (Assuming the standard chronology is reliable, Archimedes was a young man when Euclid died, but there is no mention anywhere of the two having met.)

Alexandria was founded in 332 B.C. by Alexander the Great in the wake of his campaign of conquest. By Archimedes' time, it had already grown to become the intellectual and commercial center of the Hellenistic world: a grand galaxy of buildings, monuments, wide ways, and human strivings. Along the boulevard-like Canopic Way, stretching between the Gate of the Sun and the Gate of the Moon, Alexandria's civic vigor manifested itself in spectacular Dionysian processions, one of which "included a hundred-and-eighty-foot golden phallus, two thousand golden-horned bulls, a gold statue of Alexander carried aloft by elephants, and an eighteen-foot statue of Dionysus, wearing a purple cloak and a golden crown of ivy and grapevines."

It was here, after the young Macedonian king's death, that his general, Ptolemy I Soter, established the Temple to the Muses—the Museum—and its extraordinary Library with as many as half a million documents and scrolls. (By comparison, the largest medieval European library, the Sorbonne, had less than two thousand volumes by the fourteenth century A.D.) A later regent, Ptolemy III, was an even more ardent collector. He decreed that all visitors were to relinquish any documents of literary or scientific value, which were then added to the Library's collection; in return, the visitors got cheap papyrus copies of their "donated" works. He also paid a hefty deposit to the Athenian library to borrow the state copies of works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, on the premise of transcribing them; the originals never made it back to Athens. The carefully prepared Alexandrian editions of works became the exemplars whose progeny spread throughout the Hellenistic world and, eventually, to the libraries of medieval Europe.

Alexandria was a magnet to the Mediterranean region's most able intellects, including Archimedes. In addition to its rich Library, the Alexandrian Museum had research rooms, an observatory, a zoo displaying exotic species, living quarters, and a dining hall where scholars gathered to dine and debate. Here was an ancient think tank devoted to the arts and sciences, a precursor Institute for Advanced Study, whose collective scholarship became its legacy to future generations—and whose eventual decline under Christian authority in the fourth century A.D. and destruction in A.D. 642 at the hands of Islamic invaders mark one of civilization's greatest losses.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Eureka Man by Alan Hirshfeld Copyright © 2009 by Alan Hirshfeld. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Chapter 1: The Essential Archimedes....................3
Chapter 2: The Stormy Sea....................16
Chapter 3: Euclidean Fantasies....................33
Chapter 4: Number Games....................53
Chapter 5: Eureka Man....................71
Chapter 6: The Science of Fear....................86
Chapter 7: The Voice Beneath the Page....................103
Chapter 8: A Bridge Across Time....................114
Chapter 9: The Parchment Brothers....................122
Chapter 10: Leo's Library....................132
Chapter 11: Resurrection and Light....................146
Chapter 12: Gentleman and Scoundrel....................160
Chapter 13: The French Connection....................178
Chapter 14: Sweetest Sustenance of Souls....................196
Notes....................209
Bibliography....................215
Acknowledgments....................229
Index....................231
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