College of Science & Mathematics
Deans Distinguished Spring Speaker's Series
For some, it began with Stephen Hawking; for others, it began with Einstein. But in the quest for the theory of everything, one must venture before modern physics to 200 B.C.E., in the little Greek city of Syracuse, located on the island of Sicily.
Home to the forgotten father of modern mathematics and science, Archimedes became the chief military mastermind behind the city’s defenses against the Romans in 213 B.C.E., discovering laws of physics that changed the scope of mankind’s understanding of the universe.
Chris Rorres, professor emeritus of mathematics at Drexel University, presented his dissertation “Archimedes and the quest for the Theory of Everything,” as the second participant in the Dean’s Distinguished Spring Speakers Series on April 11.
“Just to show how much we’ve forgotten Archimedes’ contribution to physics and mathematics, you’ll be surprised to know that the modern depiction of Archimedes is not him at all,” Rorres explained as he presented pictures of busts and portraits to a filled audience at Boyd Recital Hall. “It is in fact the Spartan King Archidamos; apparently, someone got the two confused. In fact, no likeness of Archimedes has survived.”
Citing Martin Gardner, a mathematics and science writer, Rorres revealed that many of the naturals laws of the universe go unnoticed in the grand scheme of scientific discovery.
“Probably the best known invention by Archimedes that we use today is the Archimedes Screw,” Rorres explained, “which is overlooked seeing as it is the biggest factor in purifying our waste in water.”
An Archimedes Screw is a revolving screw that lifts water vertically. In terms of water purification, waste remains at the bottom of the well, allowing the water to use the natural force of gravity to aid in waste removal.
According Rorres, Archimedes is also well known in the creation of the Archimedes Claw, establishing the law of the lever and the law of buoyancy. The claw was a mechanism used to throw off the buoyancy of Roman ships, then using the law of the lever to lift the ships out of the water.
Archimedes was also responsible for the first uses of calculus, discovering the measurements of circles and quadrature of the parabola.
“What’s very interesting about history in math and science is that after Archimedes, no major scientific discoveries are expanded up until 1609,” Rorres said. “Over 1,000 years went by in which Archimedes’ contributions went unsurpassed.”
So what happened to the world of physics post-Archimedes?
Rorres spoke of the works of Sir Isaac Newton and the rationality of the universe being one huge, predictable machine that operates on natural laws in time and space.
“What we’ve come to figure out is that there is no theory of everything,” Rorres said. “Every time we discover something, we can continue to break it down, meaning that a theory for everything is impossible.”
Concluding his presentation, Rorres touched upon mankind’s limits in physics, residing in his ability to consciously understand the world.
“Physicists have begun to discover that there is one variable that can change the laws of the universe, and that is our consciousness,” said Rorres. “We are limited to only a small view of the universe.”