Isn’t science lovely?

7 July 2010

The death of Archimedes (Sixteenth century copy of an ancient mosaic; Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)

If a tree does not fall in a forest, and if there are people to see that the tree has not fallen, do you need to explain the fall of the tree? I thought that there are more useful activities than explaining historical facts that did not happen. Yet it is apparently a scientific enterprise – at least I am sure it may be so in Italy.

Here‘s the story: a mechanical engineer named Cesare Rossi, from Naples, proposes that the burning mirror that Archimedes used during the siege of Syracuse was in fact a steam gun of the type designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Rossi realizes that the story of the heat ray is a Byzantine fairy tale, which is a good thing – I know a professional ancient historian who had not yet reached this simple conclusion.

But beyond this point, I cannot understand Rossi anymore. Archimedes’ heat ray is not mentioned in our sources: Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch are silent about them, although they have described the siege of Syracuse at great length and offer detailed descriptions of Archimedes’ inventions. The story surfaces centuries later, is an invention, and cannot be true; this means that there is no need to offer a hypothesis. I expect Mr Rossi’s next proposal will be an explanation how Daedalus could have flown away from Crete – another fairy tale.


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