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.

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