Archimedes and ‘Pure Science’

Speaking of Archimedes (see below),Olivia Judson incipits a piece in the New York Times thusly:

The snobbish idea that pure science is in some way superior to applied science dates to antiquity, when Plutarch says of Archimedes: “Regarding the business of mechanics and every utilitarian art as ignoble and vulgar, he gave his zealous devotion only to those subjects whose elegance and subtlety are untrammeled by the necessities of life.”

The reality appears to have been quite different, as Archimedes was not just the greatest mathematician of the ancient world, but also a clever inventor who drew inspiration from numerous practical problems — and based on the historical record, few historians today accept Plutarch at his word. Archimedes was one of the first to think deeply about fluid physics, and while many people know the famous story about his discovery of the principle of buoyancy (he saw the water level rise as he stepped into the bath, then ran naked through the streets yelling “eureka”) few know exactly what he was looking for (“eureka” means “I found it” in ancient Greek). In fact, this discovery is intimately linked with a practical problem he had been asked to solve: King Hiero wanted to know if he had been cheated by an unscrupulous jeweler who may have given him a crown that was not solid gold. Archimedes solved this problem by measuring the density of the crown via its buoyancy. His practical contributions to fluid physics also include the invention of a screw pump that became widely adopted for irrigation.

Archimedes Palimpsest Redux

There have been a pile of news reports about the Archimedes Palimpsest this week … near as I can tell, what is new in these reports is the revelation that Archimedes’ thoughts on infinity in the palimpsest are different than previously thought. The salient excerpt (via the Live Science version):

“Scholars are now talking about some new words which are emerging in the reconstruction of the evidence in introduction to the Method, that Archimedes’ concept of infinity was rather different from what was previously thought,” Bergmann said.

In fact, the new reading reveals that Archimedes was engaged in math that made conceptual use of actual infinity, as Netz describes on the Web site The calculations involved adding infinite numbers of sums, such as the number of triangles inside a prism, as well as the number of lines inside a rectangle. Archimedes tried to argue that these values are equal to each other, making a statement about actual infinity, not just potential infinity, Nets writes.

The project website mentioned above (which I wasn’t aware of) has a pile of interesting stuff, including a digital version of the palimpsest and interviews etc. with those involved. You could easily kill an hour or so there.

Soccer Origins — Not

At there’s an interview with Ukrainian football/soccer star Anatoliy Tymoshchuk … towards the end he sez:

These days, some consider the role of captain as just a nod to tradition. But remember that Herodotus described a game in ancient Greece, where soldiers played to develop their fighting capacities and used the head of the defeated team captain as a ball. It’s a historical fact that extra responsibility for a team’s result lies with the captain.

… er … stick to soccer.

Alexander the Great Bridge?

Azzaman is reporting the discovery of of a bridge somewhere north of Mosul purportedly built by Alexander the Great. In the rather vague article, archaeologist Omer Sharif is quoted inter alia:

“The bridge dates to 330 B.C. and to the reign of Alexander the Great … I have asked the Antiquities Department in Baghdad to send a team of specialists to evaluate the discovery … hopefully, a lot of the ancient construction survives so that we can have in place a bridge that will bear the name of this great monarch.”

CFP: Irony and the Ironic in Classical Literature


A conference at the University of Exeter, 1st-4th September 2009

Call for Papers

What precisely do we mean when we talk about ‘irony’?

The term ‘irony’ is often bandied about – as a glance at the Index of any commentary or literary-critical monograph will attest. Both ‘irony’ and the adjective ‘ironic’ are frequently (perhaps too frequently?) used as catch-all terms to describe a variety of effects within literary works, including unusual shifts of tone, slippage between overt and implied meanings, transparently deceptive or disingenuous narrative strategies and other self-conscious collusions with an implied reader or audience. But what sort of a phenomenon are we actually dealing with? Is irony (as many have thought) by its very nature too subtle, subjective or elusive a concept to be theorized? And what are its broader implications, once it has been identified?

These questions stimulate cross-cultural analysis, as irony may be understood differently in ancient and modern cultures. Although ironical effects, such as those outlined above, are found in abundance in ancient Greek and Roman literature, they were not theorized as such in antiquity. Instead, eirōneia and related words were used to denote a more specific and limited mode of behaviour than we associate with irony in modern thought. Indeed, given that it has been thought that an ‘ironical’ outlook is a peculiarly modern concept, is our application of this outlook to ancient texts fundamentally anachronistic? What is the value of the concepts of irony and the ironic from the historicist perspective?

This conference is designed to open up the debate about this challenging concept, and to stimulate discussion from a diversity of perspectives. It is anticipated that proceedings of the conference will be published in book form. We invite papers dealing with irony in Greek and Latin literature, and we welcome also theoretical and comparative approaches to the concepts of irony and the ironic. Topics for consideration may include:

* frameworks for understanding ‘the ironic’, especially ancient conceptualizations of ‘the ironic’
* patterns of irony and the ironic
* irony and other strategies of collusion (e.g. parody, allusion, innuendo)
* the dynamics of irony – how is it effected?
* irony and intentionality – embedded or imported meanings?
* irony and the reader/reading-cultures in antiquity
* irony as a political, rhetorical or pedagogical strategy
* the politics of irony: exclusivity and esotericism – who’s ‘in’, who’s ‘out’?

Please send abstracts of ca. 300 words to one of the conference-organisers (below) by 28th February.

Matthew Wright (M.Wright AT

Karen Ní Mheallaigh (K.Ni-Mheallaigh AT