Archimedes (c. 287-212 BC)


287 BC Archimedes was born at Syracuse and was one of the greatest physicists and mathematicians of Antiquity. Although closely related to King Hieron II of Syracuse, Archimedes did not choose the courtier carefree life, but he preferred to dedicate his time to studies.

When Hieron died, his son followed him to the throne but he died, too. A Sicilian General, called Hippocart, wanting to take over the control, having relationships with Carthage, killed all Romans who lived in Leontium.

Roma immediately decided to destroy Syracuse and sent Appius and Consul Marcellus to execute Senate’s orders. When Romans had arrived in front of the city, Archimedes was leading the defense. Polybius, Titus Liviu and Plutarch described the means his genius suggested on these circumstances in order to cause damage to enemy vessels. For three years the knowledge of only one man held on place Marcellus’ army. He built devices that were able to throw arrows to considerable distances. He built long beams out of the walls from which they could throw very large weights over enemies ships and also because of walls they could catch the vessels by hooks, to pick them up and then to throw for sinking. He invented mirrors that burnt the enemy ships by focusing the sunlight. These are obviously stories suggested by the greatness of the illustrious genius physicist and a proof of admiration he aspired to his contemporaries.

212 BC Marcellus was forced to turn the siege into a blockade. Romans had succeeded to enter Syracuse by surprise. It is said that Archimedes would have been focused on the stage of a geometry problem at that moment and he could not have been informed about what was happening. A Roman soldier entered Archimedes’ garden, where he was lost in thought and was drawing on sand. “Noli turbare circulos meos!” (Do not wipe my figures) are the words that Archimedes would have said to the soldier. This, probably not an admirer of Maths, found nothing better to do than killing him. It is said that Marcellus would have ordered not to kill Archimedes, but that soldier would not know him. Finding out about the murder, Marcellus would have suffered a lot; he ordered to be organized a pompous funeral and on the tomb a column was raised and a sphere with a circumscribed cylinder was carved in order to remind one of his important discoveries.

We have Cicero’s undoubted testimony which demonstrates the existence of the monument. The great speaker and writer searched the tomb in 75, being Sicily superintendent, and confessed within “Tusculane Conversations” that he had hardly found it, lost between weeds and brambles and he ordered to be restored.

Archimedes did not write anything about his technical inventions. Legends and anecdotes are almost the only sources that show his ingenious work. This kind of sources also exists regarding his written scientific works that were precisely transmitted to us.

One of Archimedes’ most important theoretical works is called: “About Plane Figures Balance” that is divided into two parts. Within the first part Archimedes based a new science, Statics, a brunch of Mechanics, and discussed leverage and center of gravity problems; the leverage were all known and used by people. Archimedes did not discover leverage use, he did leverage mathematical laws.

Extraordinary significance of lever law is graphically shown by few words transmitted by the legend: ”Give me a fulcrum and I overturn the Earth!” impressive words that would have been told by Archimedes while he was explaining the importance of this law.

Another important brunch of Mechanics that owes its beginnings to Archimedes is Hydrostatic. A legend connected to this beginning was told by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and writer. King Hierion, suspecting that the jeweller that manufactured his king crown would have replaced some gold by silver, asked Archimedes to find the theft without damaging the crown. Archimedes found out the solution to this problem few days later while he was having a bath. He noticed that his body was lighter into water. The crown must have been routinely weighted, in the air then weighted again keeping it submerged in water. The same thing must have been done for a piece of pure gold, then for a silver one. After a small calculation he could answer to Hierion.

The legend says that Archimedes, being in the bathroom and finding out the solution, would have jumped up and shouted “Evrika”, namely “I have found out”. Then he discovered the law that bears his name: „a body submerged in a liquid is pushed from the bottom up by a force equal to the weight of displaced liquid”.

Archimedes’ largest work is called “About Sphere and Cylinder”. This was his favourite work. Archimedes expressed his wish to have on the tomb a sphere and its circumscribed cylinder – a wish that was respected by Marcellus. He also wrote an architectural work called “The Number of Sand Grains”, another of geometry “About Conoids and Spheroids”, another “About Parabola Quadrature”. Archimedes also offered to us the work on circle length and the calculating of Pi (π) value. He studied special curves like helix, called nowadays Archimedes’ helix.

1544 The first typed book containing Archimedes’ works appeared at Basel and was called “edition princeps”.

1906 One of Archimedes’ books, “The Method”, was discovered. Within it he explained a method by which it is possible to research some mathematical problems by Mechanics.[1]




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