The Circles of Archimedes

Written for the Thousand Cats LiveJournal community, December 13, 2009.

It is said that a stranger once arrived in the ancient Greek city of Syracuse, many years ago, in a boat carved from a single piece of ebony, with silver fittings studded with pearls, and offered to gift the rulers of the city with all manner of strange and magical devices, if they would make a compact with his people, who lived on a mysterious island no man there had ever seen.

Hieronymus, the tyrannos of the city, called upon the famed mathematician and inventor Archimedes to assess the stranger’s offerings, but Archimedes made light account of all his devices, saying that magic no longer had anything to offer the world, for science could surpass it in all things. As proof of his claim, he used a device of his own, constructed of bronze and polished mirrors set in a great curve, to capture the rays of the sun and focus it on the stranger’s boat, setting it on fire.

The people feared the magician’s wrath, but he merely smiled bitterly, placed a hand lightly on the great inventor’s head, and said “If your science gives you such satisfaction, then I wish you the ability to devote yourself fully to it, to the exclusion of all else.” And having spoken this strange benediction, he turned and walked down to the harbour, where he stepped out onto the ruins of his still-burning boat, and proceeded to sail away, showing no fear amidst the flames, or even when the vessel gradually sank below the surface of the sea.

From that day on, Archimedes grew more and more obsessed with his studies, often spending hours or even days immersed in a mathematical problem, neglecting to bathe, leave the house, or even eat. When the Romans laid siege to Syracuse soon after, he could not be roused to use any of his great inventions to defend it, and the city soon fell to the invaders.

The Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus, having heard of the inventor’s fame, demanded that he be brought to him. Upon arriving at Archimedes’s home, the soldiers sent to retrieve him found him gazing transfixed at a mathematical diagram involving complex interlocking circles. When they told him his presence was required by the great general, he refused, not even deigning to look at them, and telling them that he could not leave until he had solved the problem.

In a rage, one of the soldiers drew his sword and slew him. Even in his dying moments, Archimedes could not tear himself away from the diagram, turning aside only as far as was necessary to prevent his blood from staining the vellum. His last words are said to have been “Do not disturb my circles”.

Based on a piece of random text drawn from a spam e-mail: “But Archimedes made light account of all his devices.” Historical note: while the events in the first part of the story are fictional, the account of Archimedes’s death is true, including his last words.