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Archimedes

ArchimedesBorn: c. 290 BC
Birthplace: Syracuse, Sicily, Italy
Died: 211 BC
Location of death: Syracuse, Sicily, Italy
Cause of death: Murder

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Mathematician, Inventor

Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Greatest of the ancient mathematicians

Greek mathematician and inventor, born at Syracuse, in Sicily. He was the son of Pheidias, an astronomer, and was on intimate terms with, if not related to, Hiero, king of Syracuse, and Gelo his son. He studied at Alexandria and doubtless met there Conon of Samos, whom he admired as a mathematician and cherished as a friend, and to whom he was in the habit of communicating his discoveries before publication. On his return to his native city he devoted himself to mathematical research. He himself set no value on the ingenious mechanical contrivances which made him famous, regarding them as beneath the dignity of pure science and even declining to leave any written record of them except in the case of the Sphere-making, as to which see below. As, however, these machines impressed the popular imagination, they naturally figure largely in the traditions about him. Thus he devised for Hiero engines of war which almost terrified the Romans, and which protracted the siege of Syracuse for three years. There is a story that he constructed a burning mirror which set the Roman ships on fire when they were within a bow-shot of the wall. This has been discredited because it is not mentioned by Polybius, Livy or Plutarch; but it is probable that Archimedes had constructed some such burning instrument, though the connection of it with the destruction of the Roman fleet is more than doubtful. More important, as being doubtless connected with the discovery of the principle in hydrostatics which bears his name and the foundation by him of that whole science, is the story of Hiero's reference to him of the question whether a crown made for him and purporting to be of gold, did not actually contain a proportion of silver. According to one story, Archimedes was puzzled until one day, as he was stepping into a bath and observed the water running over, it occurred to him that the excess of bulk occasioned by the introduction of alloy could be measured by putting the crown and an equal weight of gold separately into a vessel filled with water, and observing the difference of overflow. He was so overjoyed when this happy thought struck him that he ran home without his clothes, shouting "Eureka! Eureka! [I have found it, I have found it.]" Similarly his pioneer work in mechanics is illustrated by the story of his having said "Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth." Hiero asked him to give an illustration of his contention that a very great weight could be moved by a very small force. He is said to have fixed on a large and fully laden ship and to have used a mechanical device by which Hiero was enabled to move it by himself; but accounts differ as to the particular mechanical powers employed. The water-screw which he invented was probably devised in Egypt for the purpose of irrigating fields.

Archimedes died at the capture of Syracuse by Marcellus, 212 BC. In the general massacre which followed the fall of the city, Archimedes, while engaged in drawing a mathematical figure on the sand, was run through the body by a Roman soldier. No blame attaches to the Roman general, Marcellus, since he had given orders to his men to spare the house and person of the sage; and in the midst of his triumph he lamented the death of so illustrious a person, directed an honorable burial to be given him, and befriended his surviving relatives. In accordance with the expressed desire of the philosopher, his tomb was marked by the figure of a sphere inscribed in a cylinder, the discovery of the relation between the volumes of a sphere and its circumscribing cylinder being regarded by him as his most valuable achievement. When Cicero was quaestor in Sicily (75 BC), he found the tomb of Archimedes, near the Agrigentine gate, overgrown with thorns and briers. "Thus". says Cicero, "would this most famous and once most learned city of Greece have remained a stranger to the tomb of one of its most ingenious citizens, had it not been discovered by a man of Arpinum."

Works. The range and importance of the scientific labors of Archimedes will be best understood from a brief account of those writings which have come down to us; and it need only be added that his greatest work was in geometry, where he so extended the method of exhaustion as originated by Eudoxus of Cnidus, and followed by Euclid, that it became in his hands, though purely geometrical in form, actually equivalent in several cases to integration, as expounded in the first chapters of our textbooks on the integral calculus. This remark applies to the finding of the area of a parabolic segment (mechanical solution) and of a spiral, the surface and volume of a sphere and of a segment thereof, and the volume of any segments of the solids of revolution of the second degree. The extant treatises are as follows:

(1) On the Sphere and Cylinder. This treatise is in two books, dedicated to Dositheus, and deals with the dimensions of spheres, cones, "solid rhombi" and cylinders, all demonstrated in a strictly geometrical method. The first book contains forty-four propositions, and those in which the most important results are finally obtained are: 13 (surface of right cylinder), 14, 15 (surface of right cone), 33 (surface of sphere), 34 (volume of sphere and its relation to that of circumscribing cylinder), 42, 43 (surface of segment of sphere), 44 (volume of sector of sphere). The second book is in nine propositions, eight of which deal with segments of spheres and include the problems of cutting a given sphere by a plane so that (a) the surfaces, (b) the volumes, of the segments are in a given ratio (propositions 3, 4), and of constructing a segment of a sphere similar to one given segment and having (a) its volume, (b) its surface, equal to that of another (5, 6).

(2) The Measurement of the Circle is a short book of three propositions, the main result being obtained in proposition 2, which shows that the circumference of a circle is less than 3 and 1/7 and greater than 3 and 10/71 times its diameter. Inscribing in and circumscribing about a circle two polygons, each of ninety-six sides, and assuming that the perimeter of the circle lay between those of the polygons, he obtained the limits he has assigned by sheer calculation, starting from two close approximations to the value of the square root of 3, which he assumes as known between 265/153 and 1351/780.

(3) On Conoids and Spheroids is a treatise in thirty-two propositions, on the solids generated by the revolution of the conic sections about their axes, the main results being the comparisons of the volume of any segment cut off by a plane with that of a cone having the same base and axis (propositions 21, 22 for the paraboloid, 25, 26 for the hyperboloid, and 27-32 for the spheroid).

(4) On Spirals is a book of twenty-eight propositions. Propositions 1-11 are preliminary, 13-20 contain tangential properties of the curve now known as the spiral of Archimedes, and 21-28 show how to express the area included between any portion of the curve and the radii vectors to its extremities.

(5) On the Equilibrium of Planes or Centers of Gravity of Planes. This consists of two books, and may be called the foundation of theoretical mechanics, for the previous contributions of Aristotle were comparatively vague and unscientific. In the first book there are fifteen propositions, with seven postulates; and demonstrations are given, much the same as those still employed, of the centers of gravity (1) of any two weights, (2) of any parallelogram, (3) of any triangle, (4) of any trapezium. The second book in ten propositions is devoted to the finding the centers of gravity (1) of a parabolic segment, (2) of the area included between any two parallel chords and the portions of the curve intercepted by them.

(6) The Quadrature of the Parabola is a book in twenty-four propositions, containing two demonstrations that the area of any segment of a parabola is 4/3 of the triangle which has the same base as the segment and equal height. The first (a mechanical proof) begins, after some preliminary propositions on the parabola, in proposition 6, ending with an integration in proposition 16. The second (a geometrical proof) is expounded in propositions 17-24.

(7) On Floating Bodies is a treatise in two books, the first of which establishes the general principles of hydrostatics, and the second discusses with the greatest completeness the positions of rest and stability of a right segment of a paraboloid of revolution floating in a fluid.

(8) The Psammites, a small treatise, addressed to Gelo, the eldest son of Hiero, expounding, as applied to reckoning the number of grains of sand that could be contained in a sphere of the size of our "universe", a system of naming large numbers according to "orders" and "periods" which would enable any number to be expressed up to that which we should write with 1 followed by 80,000 ciphers.

(9) A Collection of Lemmas, consisting of fifteen propositions in plane geometry. This has come down to us through a Latin version of an Arabic manuscript; it cannot, however, have been written by Archimedes in its present form, as his name is quoted in it more than once.

Lastly, Archimedes is credited with the famous Cattle-Problem enunciated in the epigram edited by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1773, which purports to have been sent by Archimedes to the mathematicians at Alexandria in a letter to Eratosthenes. Of lost works by Archimedes we can identify the following: (1) investigations on polyhedra mentioned by Pappus; (2) a book addressed to Zeuxippus and dealing with the naming of numbers on the system explained in the Sand Reckoner; (3) On balances or levers; (4) On centers of gravity; (5) an optical work from which Theon of Alexandria quotes a remark about refraction; (6) a Method, mentioned by Su´das; (7) On Sphere-making, in which Archimedes explained the construction of the sphere which he made to imitate the motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets in the heavens. Cicero actually saw this contrivance and describes it in De Republica.

Father: Pheidias

    Lunar Crater Archimedes (29.7N, 4W, 82km dia, 2060m height)

Author of books:
Method Concerning Mechanical Theorems
On the Sphere and Cylinder
Measurement of the Circle
On Conoids and Spheroids
On the Equilibrium of Planes
Quadrature of the Parabola
The Sand-Reckoner
On Floating Bodies



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