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Archimedes of Syracuse

Archimedes of Syracuse
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Archimedes of Syracuse

Born: 287 BC in Syracuse, Sicily

Died: 212 BC in Syracuse, Sicily

Archimedes' father was Phidias, an astronomer. We know nothing else about Phidias other than this one fact and we only know this since Archimedes gives us this information in one of his works, The Sandreckoner. A friend of Archimedes called Heracleides wrote a biography of him but sadly this work is lost. How our knowledge of Archimedes would be transformed if this lost work were ever found, or even extracts found in the writing of others.

Archimedes was a native of Syracuse, Sicily. It is reported by some authors that he visited Egypt and there invented a device now known as Archimedes' screw. This is a pump, still used in many parts of the world. It is highly likely that, when he was a young man, Archimedes studied with the successors of Euclid in Alexandria. Certainly he was completely familiar with the mathematics developed there, but what makes this conjecture much more certain, he knew personally the mathematicians working there and he sent his results to Alexandria with personal messages. He regarded Conon of Samos, one of the mathematicians at Alexandria, both very highly for his abilities as a mathematician and he also regarded him as a close friend.

In the preface to On spirals Archimedes relates an amusing story regarding his friends in Alexandria. He tells us that he was in the habit of sending them statements of his latest theorems, but without giving proofs. Apparently some of the mathematicians there had claimed the results as their own so Archimedes says that on the last occasion when he sent them theorems he included two which were false:-

... so that those who claim to discover everything, but produce no proofs of the same, may be confuted as having pretended to discover the impossible.

Other than in the prefaces to his works, information about Archimedes comes to us from a number of sources such as in stories from Plutarch, Livy, and others. Plutarch tells us that Archimedes was related to King Hieron II of Syracuse (see for example):-

Archimedes ... in writing to King Hiero, whose friend and near relation he was....

Again evidence of at least his friendship with the family of King Hieron II comes from the fact that The Sandreckoner was dedicated to Gelon, the son of King Hieron.

There are, in fact, quite a number of references to Archimedes in the writings of the time for he had gained a reputation in his own time which few other mathematicians of this period achieved. The reason for this was not a widespread interest in new mathematical ideas but rather that Archimedes had invented many machines which were used as engines of war. These were particularly effective in the defence of Syracuse when it was attacked by the Romans under the command of Marcellus.

Plutarch writes in his work on Marcellus, the Roman commander, about how Archimedes' engines of war were used against the Romans in the siege of 212 BC:-

... when Archimedes began to ply his engines, he at once shot against the land forces all sorts of missile weapons, and immense masses of stone that came down with incredible noise and violence; against which no man could stand; for they knocked down those upon whom they fell in heaps, breaking all their ranks and files. In the meantime huge poles thrust out from the walls over the ships and sunk some by great weights which they let down from on high upon them; others they lifted up into the air by an iron hand or beak like a crane's beak and, when they had drawn them up by the prow, and set them on end upon the poop, they plunged them to the bottom of the sea; or else the ships, drawn by engines within, and whirled about, were dashed against steep rocks that stood jutting out under the walls, with great destruction of the soldiers that were aboard them. A ship was frequently lifted up to a great height in the air (a dreadful thing to behold), and was rolled to and fro, and kept swinging, until the mariners were all thrown out, when at length it was dashed against the rocks, or let fall.

Archimedes had been persuaded by his friend and relation King Hieron to build such machines:-

These machines [Archimedes] had designed and contrived, not as matters of any importance, but as mere amusements in geometry; in compliance with King Hiero's desire and request, some little time before, that he should reduce to practice some part of his admirable speculation in science, and by accommodating the theoretic truth to sensation and ordinary use, bring it more within the appreciation of the people in general.

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