Archimedes and the Door of Science

by Jeanne Bendick

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Analysis

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When dealing with the story of a person who lived in as remote a time as Archimedes, the author has several drawbacks with which to contend. These include a paucity of original documents, the questionable reliability of subsequent authors’ accounts, and the complete absence of information concerning relevant items of interest. These are problems that have beset the many authors who have been fascinated by Archimedes and have tried to share their knowledge of him with readers as completely and accurately as possible.

For an author such as Bendick, who attempts this task on a level that will attract young readers, there are further problems to be met. Bendick cannot assume that her readers have any familiarity with the world in which Archimedes lived or with the importance of his place either in long-term history or in his contemporary society. Bendick has achieved considerable success in her task through a variety of means. For example, she begins her story of Archimedes by integrating the facts of Archimedes’ birth in 287 b.c. as the son of an established astronomer into what is known from other historical sources about the customs and ceremonies that attended the birth of a child of that social class in an important Greek city such as Syracuse. Bendick then presents a picture of the early education and training of a young boy toward becoming a worthy citizen of Greece. Her writing style is geared to the modern young reader’s interests and abilities, but at the same time she expands that reader’s vocabulary and horizons.

In dealing with the years that Archimedes spent studying in Alexandria, the author carefully explains his reasons for leaving Syracuse, the origin of the city itself, and the role that its museum had achieved as a center of learning. In that setting, Archimedes had access to a fine library, skilled teachers such as Conon of Samos, and other students of a caliber similar to his own such as Eratosthenes. For some details in her presentation, Bendick carefully prefixes her statements with such phrases as “nobody knows for sure,” “probably,” and “maybe.”

This is a book written to interest and inform young readers. Yet, while it is not a historical treatise requiring constant documentation, it would have been helpful to her more mature readers if Bendick had provided a listing of additional presentations about Archimedes and his contributions to knowledge. Bendick recognizes this possibility when she comments, in the listing of Archimedes’ writing, that “some are so complicated that they are only for advanced mathematicians, but you may want to study them someday.”

For the main body of this book, Bendick presents several examples of discoveries or inventions that have long been ascribed to Archimedes. A particular example is his discovery of the Archimedes Principle relating to objects floating on, or submerged in, water. This was a discovery made at the behest of his friend King Hiero, who wanted a test made of the genuineness of the gold used in his new crown. Tradition has it that Archimedes discovered the basic principle involved while himself immersed in the public baths and that he became so excited that he leapt out, dashed unclothed down the street, and shouted “Eureka!” (I have found it).

Bendick presents this episode in a lively fashion that is certain to amuse young readers, but she carefully explains exactly the observations that were involved and their significance for the problem that Archimedes was studying. She then suggests some simple experiments that young readers can perform for themselves as an introduction to the topic of hydrostatics, a branch of physics whose study...

(This entire section contains 808 words.)

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was initiated by Archimedes.

Bendick follows a similar course—informing, entertaining, and making new concepts accessible to the young reader—when she presents some of Archimedes’ other successful investigations. Throughout her presentations, she has inserted simple sketches and diagrams to enhance the meaning of terms and to stimulate her readers visually in an amusing way. Among the topics so covered are Archimedes’ water screw, levers and pulleys, the center of gravity, and mathematical studies involving numbers and geometrical concepts.

In the chapter “The War Machines of Archimedes,” Bendick shifts her focus to the political and military aspects of the society in which Archimedes lived and served his king and country. Later, when war did come to Syracuse, his machines were successfully put into service against the Romans under Archimedes’ own supervision. Bendick has included a passage written by the Roman historian Plutarch describing their effectiveness in battle.

Eventually, after three years of siege, Syracuse fell to the Romans as a result of the treachery of Hippocrates, who had succeeded Hiero. Soon after, in 212 b.c., Archimedes met his death at the hands of a sword-wielding Roman soldier at the age of seventy-five. Bendick’s description of that episode is certain to touch the sensitive young reader.

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