THE BLOG
05/27/2014 05:43 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Archimedes: The Greatest Scientist Who Ever Lived

The scientist who personifies the greatest achievements of Greek and Western science was Archimedes. He applied mathematics for the understanding of the natural world and the cosmos.

In one of his books, Ψαμμιτης (Psammites), or The Sand-Reckoner, Archimedes attempted to measure the size of the universe by calculating the number of the grains of sand necessary to fill the cosmos (sphere of the fixed stars). That number turned out to be a huge one: something like 10 to the 63 power.

Archimedes correctly measured the angle of seeing the sun in the sky: 32 to 27 sixtieths of a degree. "The diameter of the sun," he said in The Sand-Reckoner, "is about 30 times greater than the diameter of the moon and not greater.... [T]he diameter of the sun is greater than the side of the chiliagon [a thousand-sided polygon] inscribed in the greatest circle in the [sphere of the] universe."

Archimedes was the greatest Greek mathematician of the ancient world and, with little doubt, the greatest scientist who ever lived. He was born in Syracuse, Sicily, in 287 B.C.E. He was also a philosopher, an astronomer, a physicist, an engineer and an inventor. In fact, like Aristotle before him, he set the foundations of Greek and Western science. In a metaphorical sense, all Western science is a series of footnotes to Archimedes.

In 1964, Marshall Clagett, the American historian who studied the influence of Archimedes on the thought of the Middle Ages, had this to say:

The importance of the role played by Archimedes in the history of science can scarcely be exaggerated. He was emulated and admired in his own day and at successive periods in later times. His name appears on the pages of the works of the great figures that fashioned the beginnings of modern mechanics.... Galileo mentions Archimedes by actual count over one hundred times and in almost Homeric hyperbole, using such expressions as suprahumanus Archimedes, inimitablilis Archimedes, divinissimus Archimedes, and so on. Archimedes' significance for these founders of early modern science lay in the use of mathematics in the treatment of physical problems as well as in the originality and fertility of his mathematical techniques.

Archimedes invented a variety of machines and fields of science like statics, hydrostatics, combinatorics, and mathematical physics. In fact, he is the grandfather of the Antikythera mechanism, the world's first "computer," constructed in Rhodes in the second century B.C.E.

The writings of Archimedes were essential for the rebirth and evolution of science. The scientists of the Renaissance, and not merely Galileo, venerated Archimedes. They made him their model. Since the Renaissance, scientists have been looking up to Archimedes.

Reviel Netz, professor of classics at Stanford University and translator of the works of Archimedes, is convinced Archimedes sparked calculus and mathematical physics. The "text of Archimedes," he said, "is with us, simply, as modern science."

In June 2010, at an international conference on the legacy and influence of Archimedes, in the homeland of Archimedes, Syracuse, two distinguished scientists, Stephanos Paipetis from Greece and Marco Ceccarelli from Italy, summed up the general consensus of the 60 contributors as follows:

Archimedes' works are still of interest everywhere and, indeed, an in-depth knowledge of this glorious [Archimedean] past can be a great source of inspiration in developing the present and in shaping the future with new ideas in teaching, research, and technological applications.

I had the pleasure of listening to scientists reconfirming this admiration for Archimedes. The conference, "Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes," took place May 23, 2014, in the beautiful grounds of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

The conference complemented an exhibition of the so-called Archimedes palimpsest, a 13th-century Christian prayer book written over the erased treatises of Archimedes. Experts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, spent close to 10 years deciphering and reading the erased works of Archimedes.

We heard from Will Noel, who had the good sense of convincing the "owner" of the palimpsest to give his precious possession to the Walters Museum for preservation and recovering of the hidden treatises of Archimedes. Then Abigail Quandt explained how she spent four years alone in taking apart the disintegrating Christian prayer book.

Finally, Reviel Netz spoke about Archimedes. Netz, born in Israel, loves Archimedes. He talked and walked in front of his audience, confident of his intimate knowledge of the mind of this Greek genius. He rightly equated Archimedes to modern science.

We are fortunate that 50 to 70 percent of what Archimedes wrote made it to our times. The rest of the classical treasures, especially books, were not as lucky. Much less survived.

Imagine the Christians using the books of Archimedes and Euripides and numerous other Greek scientists, dramatists, poets, and philosophers to write their hymns! It is not right to call this crime recycling. It's murder.

This crime is hiding in every palimpsest, which in Greek means a book created on the scratched or erased pages of a Greek text. Only 1 percent of what the Greeks wrote survived to our era. And while the Christians of Greece are responsible for saving this 1 percent of Greek literature from destruction, Christianity is responsible for the burning and wiping out of 99 percent of the Greek literary legacy.

Just think of where we would have been if we had all that priceless treasure.

Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that Archimedes calculated the number of the grains of sand necessary to fill the cosmos to "something like 1,063." That figure should have been 10 to the 63 power. The post has been updated accordingly.