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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Archimedes

Imagine a real scientist living before there were computers. These days, long difficult calculations can be done in nanoseconds with a computer. When the groundwork was being laid for our modern conveniences everything came the hard way. Yet to those engaging in the work, it was done for pleasure. Archimedes was one who engaged in finding things out for the fun of it.

The following was taken from an article by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson:

"Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific knowledge, that though these inventions had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life; studies, the superiority of which to all others is unquestioned, and in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, of the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration. "

One of the things Archimedes deemed worthy of writing about was his method of discovery. In 'The Method' he writes, "... certain things first became clear to me by a mechanical method, although they had to be proved by geometry afterwards because their investigation by the said method did not furnish an actual proof. But it is of course easier, when we have previously acquired, by the method, some knowledge of the questions, to supply the proof than it is to find it without any previous knowledge. "

This is a very complex statement. The modern day scientist has so much information and so many tools at his/her disposal that it's hard to keep track of everything involved in an experiment. Are we certain that we have the proper knowledge of the questions we are asking? Are we Martians who've come to earth to discover that diet coke makes people fat?

Plutarch, an ancient historian, describes Archimedes genius; "It is not possible to find in all geometry more difficult and intricate questions, or more simple and lucid explanations. Some ascribe this to his natural genius; while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlaboured results. No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required."

I can recall a professor in college describing the PCR method discovered by Kary Mullis. He said it was so simple that everyone who first read about it immediately slapped their forehead and cursed themselves for not thinking of it. It was as if the professor was saying it was too simple for his big brain. Yet he didn't think of it and he never would have. He was never put in the position to ask the question of how to make more DNA. Everyone had accepted the laborious methods being used prior to PCR. Kary Mullis was bored with what his superiors wanted him to do. He thought up a better way to amplify DNA. When you saw what he did you were impressed. Heath, a mathematical historian, described Archimedes work in a more eloquent way:

"The treatises are, without exception, monuments of mathematical exposition; the gradual revelation of the plan of attack, the masterly ordering of the propositions, the stern elimination of everything not immediately relevant to the purpose, the finish of the whole, are so impressive in their perfection as to create a feeling akin to awe in the mind of the reader."

1 comment:

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