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Eureka! Rome exhibition honors Archimedes

ROME: Archimedes, the great inventor of antiquity, is the star of an unprecedented exhibition in Rome that includes modern applications of some of his best known discoveries. “We owe him some revolutionary inventions,” observed Umberto Broccoli, head of cultural heritage in the Italian capital.

“He was a precursor to Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein – an inventive genius par excellence.”

“There has never been an exhibition on Archimedes,” said Paolo Galluzzi, head of the Galileo museum in Florence, which is organizing the event alongside Florence’s Museum of the History of Science and the Max-Planck Institute in Berlin.

“He managed to combine mathematical reasoning and the formulation of theories that are still taught in our schools 2,300 years later with concrete solutions,” he said, “like the ones to defend his hometown of Syracuse against a siege by the Romans.”

The exhibition is divided up into eight sections, accompanied by videos of some of his experiments.

“[Archimedes] is the example of the synthesis between apparent complexity of initial needs and the amazing simplicity of the solutions,” said Jurgen Renn, director of the Max-Planck Institute.

Thanks to the archaeological collections of the Paolo Orsi Museum in Syracuse, the show illustrates the splendor of the Sicilian city in the third century B.C., when it was Greek.

It places Archimedes in the rich context of Mediterranean culture, exploring his contacts with Alexandria, where he studied sciences and with geographer and astronomer Eratosthenes.

During a period of peace that lasted half a century, Archimedes became one of the closest collaborators of the king of Syracuse, Hiero II.

A brilliant physicist, Archimedes invented the screw pump that is still used to irrigate farmland and drag ships into dry dock today.

He was also the inventor of the water clock and the theory of levers used to lift heavy weights. His most famous discovery, which is also shown in the exhibition, was the method to calculate mass based on the displacement of water.

After being asked by the king to verify the amount of gold in his crown, Archimedes was initially nonplussed, but as he was taking a bath and saw the water spilling over he realized he could do so by calculating the volume of water it displaced.

“Eureka!” (“I found it!”), he is said to have exclaimed, before running naked in the streets to announce his famous discovery.

During the Romans’ long siege of Syracuse (215-212 B.C.), Archimedes perfected the use of catapults and is credited with inventing “burning mirrors” that harnessed the sun’s rays to set the Roman fleet alight.

The exhibition also shows that a “myth of Archimedes” took root shortly after he was assassinated by a Roman soldier, thanks to the emperor Marcellus and the writings of the architect Vetruvius and the biographer Plutarch.

Forgotten for centuries, the inventor was rediscovered in the Middle Ages by Muslim scholars and then again during the European Renaissance.

His teachings were the basis for discoveries by Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci – a fact highlighted at the exhibition through their writings and the reproduction of a cannon that Archimedes is said to have invented.

The exhibition ends in a hall where visitors can try out machines based on discoveries made by Archimedes – a kind of satellite dish that projects sound, a steelyard balance and a tool for designing spirals used in sewing machines.

“Archimedes: Art and Science of Invention” is up at the Capitoline Museums until Jan. 12. For more details, see http://mostre.museogalileo.it/archimede.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 04, 2013, on page 16.

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