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Archimedes

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Archimedes, a name commonly associated with the beginning of science, was an engineer and one of the greatest mathematicians in history. His impact on modern science rests on his use of experiment and invention to test ideas and his use mathematics to describe the basic principles of physical phenomena.

Knowledge of the lives of ancient philosophers like Archimedes is not prevalent. We know from his writings that he grew up and spent much of his life in Syracuse, a Sicilian port on the Ionian Sea. His life spanned (approximately) the years 287 B.C. to 212 B.C. His father was the astronomer Phidias and he also mentioned his friend and possibly kinsman, King Hieron II (ruler of Sicily from about 270 B.C.). According to other authors, Archimedes traveled to Egypt and there invented the device known as "Archimedes’ screw," a pump that is still used widely around the world.

There are many references to Archimedes in writings of his time period. His fame then was not due to an interest in his mathematical ideas—it was in his inventions. Plutarch wrote about Archimedes’ "engines of war" being used against the Romans in the siege of 212 B.C. Apparently Archimedes was persuaded by King Hieron to devote some of his mental ability toward that purpose.

It is interesting that despite the fame he achieved because of his mechanical inventions, he believed that pure mathematics was the more worthwhile pursuit. Plutarch describes his attitude:

Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific knowledge, that though these inventions had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating ...

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...percomputer.

Archimedes died tragically during an invasion of Syracuse at the hands of a soldier who was ordered by his superior to spare him. At the time, Archimedes was intent on working out some problem with a diagram. According to historians, Archimedes played an important role in defending the city. He designed ballistics machines that hurled rocks at ships and cranes that dropped large stones on them. I read several stories of a great lever lifting them out of the water. This illustration is a painting based on the tale of Archimedes' claw.

The exact circumstances of his death differ in report. Archimedes requested that his tombstone display a cylinder containing the largest possible sphere and inscribed with the ratio of the cylinder's volume to that of the sphere. Archimedes considered the discovery of this ratio his greatest of accomplishment.