Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from They Called Me Mad: Genius, Madness and the Scientists Who Pushed the Limits of Knowledge by John Monahan (on sale December 7 from Berkley). In it Monahan takes the reader from Archimedes archetypical "Eureka!" moment to J. Robert Oppenheimer's fraught findings.
His genius shone like a beacon throughout the Hellenistic world, and his dazzling mathematical insights and wondrous inventions continue to fascinate us to this day. Unfortunately much of his actual life is obscured by the mists of time. In the absence of facts, a body of legend has grown, punctuated by secondhand and thirdhand accounts of varying accuracy. Galileo venerated him. The Fields Medal, one of the most prestigious prizes for mathematicians bears his image. The tenth-century Islamic geometer Abū Sahl al-Kūhī was so impressed by his works that he called him the “imam of mathematics” (Hirshfeld, 2009). He is credited with calculating pi and the volume of the universe, discovering principles of buoyancy, inventing water pumps, and building war engines capable of grinding the Roman army to a halt. Not to mention inventing what may have been the world’s first death ray. The name of this legendary genius, perhaps the greatest mathematician and inventor of all time, is Archimedes.
His life began on the sun-drenched shores of the island of Sicily, in the city-state of Syracuse. Originally a Greek colony, sitting at the nexus of Mediterranean trade, it was one of the most influential cities of the ancient world, described by Cicero as, “the greatest Greek City and the most beautiful of them all.” Its harbor was filled with Egyptian, Greek, and Phoenician trading vessels bearing all manner of oils, wines, and exotic spices. Unlike most of the other city-states of the time, the leaders of Syracuse had managed to safely navigate the treacherous political waters between Rome and Carthage, the super-powers of the day. So at the time of Archimedes’ birth, Syracuse enjoyed an unusual period of peace and prosperity.
Exact dates are difficult, but it is believed that Archimedes was born around 287 b.c.e. His father was the astronomer Pheidias, who passed on to the young Archimedes his love for the stars, the planets, and the other wonders of the universe. Starting around the age of seven, the boy Archimedes would have received the formal education typical of Greek males, including lessons in Greek grammar, literature, and music as well as training in sports such as running and throwing the discus and javelin.
When Archimedes was a teenager, something occurred that would have important implications for the young man. Around 270 b.c.e., Hieron, a military commander and illegitimate son of a Syracusan nobleman, seized power and became king of Syracuse. Archimedes and Hieron were friends; some have even suggested they may have been related. Whether or not that was true, the two men would form a long-lasting relationship that would serve them both well.
Shortly after Hieron took the throne, Pheidias sent the young Archimedes to continue his education across the sea in the storied city of Alexandria. Founded in Egypt near the Nile Delta by the legendary Alexander the Great, the city had been built by one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy. When he succeeded Alexander and became king of Egypt, Ptolemy I dedicated the city to the pursuit of culture and learning, turning it into the greatest intellectual center in the ancient world.
The city was home to the temple of the Muses, the origin of our word museum. This wasn’t one building, but a complex of buildings, including lecture halls, dissection rooms, botanical gardens, and even a zoo, in addition to accommodations for visiting scholars from all over the known world. Next to the museum was the famous Library of Alexandria. At the time, the library was the greatest repository of knowledge civilization had ever known, containing over half a million works.