Archimedes of Syracuse was an Ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Although few details of his life are known, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. Generally considered the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time, Archimedes anticipated modern calculus and analysis by applying concepts of infinitesimals and the method of exhaustion to derive and rigorously prove a range of geometrical theorems, including the area of a circle, the surface area and volume of a sphere, and the area under a parabola.
Other mathematical achievements include deriving an accurate approximation of pi, defining and investigating the spiral bearing his name, and creating a system using exponentiation for expressing very large numbers. He was also one of the first to apply mathematics to physical phenomena, founding hydrostatics and statics, including an explanation of the principle of the lever. He is credited with designing innovative machines, such as his screw pump, compound pulleys, and defensive war machines to protect his native Syracuse from invasion.
Archimedes died during the Siege of Syracuse when he was killed by a Roman soldier despite orders that he should not be harmed. Cicero describes visiting the tomb of Archimedes, which was surmounted by a sphere and a cylinder, which Archimedes had requested to be placed on his tomb, representing his mathematical discoveries.
Unlike his inventions, the mathematical writings of Archimedes were little known in antiquity. Mathematicians from Alexandria read and quoted him, but the first comprehensive compilation was not made until c. 530 AD by Isidore of Miletus in Byzantine Constantinople, while commentaries on the works of Archimedes written by Eutocius in the sixth century AD opened them to wider readership for the first time. The relatively few copies of Archimedes’ written work that survived through the Middle Ages were an influential source of ideas for scientists during the Renaissance, while the discovery in 1906 of previously unknown works by Archimedes in the Archimedes Palimpsest has provided new insights into how he obtained mathematical results.
Archimedes was born c. 287 BC in the seaport city of Syracuse, Sicily, at that time a self-governing colony in Magna Graecia, located along the coast of Southern Italy. The date of birth is based on a statement by the Byzantine Greek historian John Tzetzes that Archimedes lived for 75 years. In The Sand Reckoner, Archimedes gives his father’s name as Phidias, an astronomer about whom nothing is known. Plutarch wrote in his Parallel Lives that Archimedes was related to King Hiero II, the ruler of Syracuse. A biography of Archimedes was written by his friend Heracleides but this work has been lost, leaving the details of his life obscure. It is unknown, for instance, whether he ever married or had children. During his youth, Archimedes may have studied in Alexandria, Egypt, where Conon of Samos and Eratosthenes of Cyrene were contemporaries. He referred to Conon of Samos as his friend, while two of his works (The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Cattle Problem) have introductions addressed to Eratosthenes.
Discoveries and inventions
The most widely known anecdote about Archimedes tells of how he invented a method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape. According to Vitruvius, a votive crown for a temple had been made for King Hiero II, who had supplied the pure gold to be used, and Archimedes was asked to determine whether some silver had been substituted by the dishonest goldsmith. Archimedes had to solve the problem without damaging the crown, so he could not melt it down into a regularly shaped body in order to calculate its density. While taking a bath, he noticed that the level of the water in the tub rose as he got in, and realized that this effect could be used to determine the volume of the crown. For practical purposes water is incompressible, so the submerged crown would displace an amount of water equal to its own volume. By dividing the mass of the crown by the volume of water displaced, the density of the crown could be obtained. This density would be lower than that of gold if cheaper and less dense metals had been added. Archimedes then took to the streets naked, so excited by his discovery that he had forgotten to dress, crying “Eureka!” (Greek: “εὕρηκα, heúrēka!”, meaning “I have found [it]!”).The test was conducted successfully, proving that silver had indeed been mixed in.
While he is often regarded as a designer of mechanical devices, Archimedes also made contributions to the field of mathematics. Plutarch wrote: “He placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life.” Archimedes was able to use infinitesimals in a way that is similar to modern integral calculus. Through proof by contradiction (reductio ad absurdum), he could give answers to problems to an arbitrary degree of accuracy, while specifying the limits within which the answer lay. This technique is known as the method of exhaustion, and he employed it to approximate the value of π. In Measurement of a Circle he did this by drawing a larger regular hexagon outside a circle and a smaller regular hexagon inside the circle, and progressively doubling the number of sides of each regular polygon, calculating the length of a side of each polygon at each step. As the number of sides increases, it becomes a more accurate approximation of a circle. After four such steps, when the polygons had 96 sides each, he was able to determine that the value of π lay between 3
(approximately 3.1408), consistent with its actual value of approximately 3.1416. He also proved that the area of a circle was equal to π multiplied by the square of the radius of the circle (πr2). In On the Sphere and Cylinder, Archimedes postulates that any magnitude when added to itself enough times will exceed any given magnitude. This is the Archimedean property of real numbers.
The works of Archimedes were written in Doric Greek, the dialect of ancient Syracuse. The written work of Archimedes has not survived as well as that of Euclid, and seven of his treatises are known to have existed only through references made to them by other authors. Pappus of Alexandria mentions On Sphere-Making and another work on polyhedra, while Theon of Alexandria quotes a remark about refraction from the now-lost Catoptrica. During his lifetime, Archimedes made his work known through correspondence with the mathematicians in Alexandria. The writings of Archimedes were first collected by the Byzantine Greek architect Isidore of Miletus (c. 530 AD), while commentaries on the works of Archimedes written by Eutocius in the sixth century AD helped to bring his work a wider audience. Archimedes’ work was translated into Arabic by Thābit ibn Qurra (836–901 AD), and Latin by Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114–1187 AD). During the Renaissance, the Editio Princeps (First Edition) was published in Basel in 1544 by Johann Herwagen with the works of Archimedes in Greek and Latin. Around the year 1586 Galileo Galilei invented a hydrostatic balance for weighing metals in air and water after apparently being inspired by the work of Archimedes.
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