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Library of Alexandria (Original)

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Archimedes (Greek: Αρχιμηδης ) (287 BC–212 BC) was an ancient mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer and philosopher born in the Greek seaport colony of Syracuse. He is considered by some math historians to be one of history's greatest mathematicians, along with possibly Newton, Gauss and Euler.

Discoveries and inventions

The Archimedes' screw lifts water to higher levels for irrigationArchimedes became a popular figure as a result of his involvement in the defense of Syracuse against the Roman siege in the First and Second Punic Wars. He is reputed to have held the Romans at bay with war machines of his own design; to have been able to move a full-size ship complete with crew and cargo by pulling a single rope[1]; to have discovered the principles of density and buoyancy, also known as Archimedes' principle, while taking a bath (thereupon taking to the streets naked calling "Eureka" - "I have found it!"); and to have invented the irrigation device known as Archimedes' screw.

He has also been credited with the possible invention of the odometer during the First Punic War. One of his inventions used for military defense of Syracuse against the invading Romans was the claw of Archimedes.

It is said that he prevented one Roman attack on Syracuse by using a large array of mirrors (speculated to have been highly polished shields) to reflect sunlight onto the attacking ships causing them to catch fire. This popular legend was tested on the Discovery Channel's MythBusters program. After a number of experiments, whereby the hosts of the program tried burning a model wooden ship with a variety of mirrors, they concluded that the enemy ships would have had to have been virtually motionless and very close to shore for them to ignite, an unlikely scenario during a battle. A group at MIT subsequently performed their own tests and concluded that the mirror weapon was a possibility [2], although later tests of their system showed it to be ineffective in conditions that more closely matched the described siege [3].

Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier in the sack of Syracuse during the Second Punic War, despite orders from the Roman general, Marcellus, that he was not to be harmed. The Greeks said that he was killed while drawing an equation in the sand; engrossed in his diagram and impatient with being interrupted, he is said to have muttered his famous last words before being slain by an enraged Roman soldier: Μὴ μοὺ τους κύκλους τάραττε ("Don't disturb my circles"). This story was sometimes told to contrast the Greek high-mindedness with Roman ham-handedness; however, it should be noted that Archimedes designed the siege engines that devastated a substantial Roman invasion force, so his death may have been out of retribution.

In creativity and insight, he exceeded any other mathematician prior to the European Renaissance. In a civilization with an awkward numeral system and a language in which "a myriad" (literally "ten thousand") meant "infinity", he invented a positional numeral system and used it to write numbers up to 1064. He devised a heuristic method based on statistics to do private calculation that we would classify today as integral calculus, but then presented rigorous geometric proofs for his results. To what extent he actually had a correct version of integral calculus is debatable. He proved that the ratio of a circle's perimeter to its diameter is the same as the ratio of the circle's area to the square of the radius. He did not call this ratio π but he gave a procedure to approximate it to arbitrary accuracy and gave an approximation of it as between 3 + 1/7 and 3 + 10/71. He was the first, and possibly the only, Greek mathematician to introduce mechanical curves (those traced by a moving point) as legitimate objects of study. He proved that the area enclosed by a parabola and a straight line is 4/3 the area of a triangle with equal base and height. (See the illustration below. The "base" is any secant line, not necessarily orthogonal to the parabola's axis; "the same base" means the same "horizontal" component of the length of the base; "horizontal" means orthogonal to the axis. "Height" means the length of the segment parallel to the axis from the vertex to the base. The vertex must be so placed that the two horizontal distances mentioned in the illustration are equal.)

In the process, he calculated the oldest known example of a geometric series with the ratio 1/4:

If the first term in this series is the area of the triangle in the illustration then the second is the sum of the areas of two triangles whose bases are the two smaller secant lines in the illustration. Essentially, this paragraph summarizes the proof. Archimedes also gave a quite different proof of nearly the same proposition by a method using infinitesimals (see "How Archimedes used infinitesimals").

He proved that the area and volume of the sphere are in the same ratio to the area and volume of a circumscribed straight cylinder, a result he was so proud of that he made it his epitaph.

Archimedes is probably also the first mathematical physicist on record, and the best before Galileo and Newton. He invented the field of statics, enunciated the law of the lever, the law of equilibrium of fluids and the law of buoyancy. (He famously discovered the latter when he was asked to determine whether a crown had been made of pure gold, or gold adulterated with silver; he realized that the rise in the water level when it was immersed would be equal to the volume of the crown, and the decrease in the weight of the crown would be in proportion; he could then compare those with the values of an equal weight of pure gold). He was the first to identify the concept of center of gravity, and he found the centers of gravity of various geometric figures, assuming uniform density in their interiors, including triangles, paraboloids, and hemispheres. Using only ancient Greek geometry, he also gave the equilibrium positions of floating sections of paraboloids as a function of their height, a feat that would be taxing to a modern physicist using calculus.

Apart from general physics he was an astronomer, and Cicero writes that the Roman consul Marcellus brought two devices back to Rome from the sacked city of Syracuse. One device mapped the sky on a sphere and the other predicted the motions of the sun and the moon and the planets (i.e., an orrery). He credits Thales and Eudoxus for constructing these devices. For some time this was assumed to be a legend of doubtful nature, but the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism has changed the view of this issue, and it is indeed probable that Archimedes possessed and constructed such devices. Pappus of Alexandria writes that Archimedes had written a practical book on the construction of such spheres entitled On Sphere-Making.

Archimedes' works were not widely recognized, even in antiquity. He and his contemporaries probably constitute the peak of Greek mathematical rigour. During the Middle Ages the mathematicians who could understand Archimedes' work were few and far between. Many of his works were lost when the library of Alexandria was burnt (twice) and survived only in Latin or Arabic translations. As a result, his mechanical method was lost until around 1900, after the arithmetization of analysis had been carried out successfully. We can only speculate about the effect that the "method" would have had on the development of calculus had it been known in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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