It was Lucius, the ambitious staff centurion of the Roman general Marcellus who visited Archimedes to lure him over from the Greeks to work for the Romans. To disarm the great man, Lucius applauded the catapults and mirrors built on his design. Had it not been for these ingenious weapons, Syracuse would have fallen in a month instead of the two years that it took to repel the Roman armada. He conveyed the high regard that his fellow warriors had for the ingenuity of the weapon, in a manner of camaraderie that is shown by retired officers from both sides of the Indo-Pak border when they meet for their powwows.
Archimedes brushed aside the congratulations and responded that what he had come up with were ordinary mechanisms for throwing projectiles — mere toys. They were of no great importance from a scientific point of view, he said. Here the similarity ends with the nuke weapons designers. These proud makers of weapons of mass destruction lapped up the praise that their countries showered on them, although their bombs also largely required engineering competence, and not any significant advance in science.
Why should he join the Romans, asked Archimedes? Because he lived in Sicily, of which Syracuse was a city state, and the Roman wanted to occupy Sicily, said Lucius. But why Sicily, he enquired. To which came the condescending reply, that the Roman wanted to be the masters of the Mediterranean, and whoever was the master of that would be the master of the world. What follows is a paraphrase of an account of the exchange, I read, between these two.
‘And must you be masters of the world?’ asked Archimedes.
‘Rome’s mission is to become that, and it is going to achieve its goal’.
‘Possibly, but I wouldn’t advise it, Lucius. To be the master of the world you are going to have an awful lot of defending to do. That’s going to be very troublesome.’
‘That doesn’t matter as we shall have a great Empire.’
‘If I draw a small circle or a large circle, it’s still a circle. But a larger circle acquires a large frontier that needs to be defended.’
‘You are juggling with arguments, Archimedes. We have got to be stronger than anyone else in the world.’
‘Why?’ asked Archimedes.
‘To keep our position. The stronger we are, the more enemies we get. And to guard against them we need to be the strongest.’
‘But to guard your strength you have to expend a lot of it merely defending it. Then one day it will all become too much.’
Getting a bit tired of this philosophising, Lucius repeated his bait about Archimedes being invited to build the strongest war machine for the Romans. ‘That a man like you would want to acquire mastery over the world.’
‘You mustn’t be offended, but I’ve something more important here. Something more lasting.’
‘It’s the method of calculating the area of a segment of a circle!’
That’s a lesson that leaders, military and civilian, as well as the people need to learn. It is such distilled truth that our great writers need to get across to us so that it can be truly internalised instead of the noise that so often fills the media.
The author is a physicist and environmentalist with an interest in education, information and science policy. Email: daudpota @gmail.com
Demolishing circles of domination
Q Isa Daudpota