Norstedts, 2005. ISBN: 9789113015057
Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2007:1
Not very much is known about Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) and this book will not fill the gaps, nor would anyone half-reasonable expect it to. In fact, even the author concedes that he has not managed such an impossible feat. Nonetheless, a biography of Archimedes would seem a reasonable proposition, particularly as over 2200 years have passed since the last alleged attempt by Heraklides. Much of Archimedes’s works perished in the burning of Alexandria’s temples in 391 A.D., many of which were also used as book depositories. In the last hundred years or so some of his lost texts have been rediscovered as palimpsests. Nonetheless he remains an elusive figure.
Much like the well-loved subject of this book, our very own bather of antiquity waving his hands in the air and repeating that oft-repeated word (to avoid cliché, it will not be given again), Martinsson has submerged as much as he dares into the tub, ending up with a volumetric analysis of Archimedes told by social and historical reference. Structuralists might throw up their hands in horror, this being the exact opposite of their preferred method. Even mathematicians might disapprove – a mathematician stands or falls by the quality of his equations.
Mathematics in the ancient world concerned itself ultimately with measuring the universe and all that was in it, although there was a reluctance to accept notions such as infinity. Archimedes confronted problems that others thought impenetrable or even disreputable (because they might tend to suggest that divine forces had created a disordered universe). Whilst members of the Pythagorean brotherhood were told not to "piss towards the setting sun" (i.e. to have some humility), Archimedes seems to have thrived on the cut and thrust of academic life. In an age where large numbers inspired superstitious unease, he boasted that there were in fact numbers big enough to count every grain of sand in Sicily. At this time there was no effective system of mathematical annotation (numbers were written as words), and in the light of this the achievements of Archimedes seem even more astonishing.
Martinsson’s peripatetic approach is usually effective, particularly as he swarms all over his subject with immense energy. His detailed analysis of Archimedes’s mathematics sits comfortably alongside his well sourced descriptions of Alexandria and his debunking of sources and myths.
The book opens with a long chapter on marriage and the role of women in pre-Christian Syracuse. Interesting, but slightly meandering, particularly as we know little about Archimedes’s wife beyond the fact that she had a name. The section on Archimedes’s journey to Alexandria, and the descriptions of that vibrant, ancient city with its renowned library, renders very effectively our picture of the mature scientist making his pilgrimage. On the whole, the reader is left with an enhanced sense of ruling political, cultural and intellectual currents in the age of Archimedes.
Martinsson is good at exposing the anecdotal sources of almost all of our supposed knowledge of Archimedes. How, for instance, did Plutarch know that Archimedes had an aversion to bathing, that his servants had to force him into the bath-tub where he would absent-mindedly sit tracing mathematical calculations in the oil smeared over his body? Or, when finally the Roman army under Marcellus broke through the walls and sacked Syracuse, how can we be certain that Archimedes was killed by a soldier whilst drawing circles in the sand? Would this smelly, absent-minded eccentric really be the man assigned by King Hieron to fortify his city?
Disappointedly enough, Archimedes probably never did run naked through the streets, whilst shouting with elation. He was, however, a much admired mathematician who was credited with an extraordinary defence of Syracuse by the deployment of a number of fearful engines, including heavy-duty long and short-range catapults, ship-lifting claws and a mirror capable of setting fire to galleys at some distance (Descartes proved with some irritation that the mirror was a scientific impossibility).
What Martinsson has given us here is a courageous attempt to sketch the personality of a true millennial heavyweight, a man who in many ways fused the concerns of science and humanism. As the author admits, if with this book he has contributed "in some way" to a rapprochement between these now divided disciplines, his efforts have been worthwhile. While this may be a bit of an ambitious aim, one cannot help but applaud Martinsson’s efforts.