Community and Mystery: Archimedes and Syfy’s “Eureka”

The cast of Eureka. From left: Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Niall Matter, Joe Morton, Erica Cerra, Neil Grayson, Colin Ferguson

The cast of Eureka. From left: Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Niall Matter, Joe Morton, Erica Cerra, Neil Grayson, Colin Ferguson

Although I build you engines new,
As to my native city due
When foes surround our citadel,
These endures not Science well;
Not thus, she would freely use
Archimedes of Syracuse.
He lifts Marcellus’ ships on high,
Or fires them with Apollo’s eye.
Know, these are mercenary arts-
Of Science but the meaner parts-
Such as the noble mind most fears,
In its own home ‘mong stars and spheres.
There, with beauty and subtility,
It knows no mixture of utility.
-Archimedes, John Albee (198)

[Archimedes] used to trace geometrical figures in the ashes of the fire, and diagrams in the oil of his body, being in a state of entire preoccupation, and, in the truest sense, divine possession with his love and delight in science.
Marcellus, Plutarch, Trans. John Dryden

It’s a central part of pure mathematics apocrypha; mythic lore in a world of the utmost rationality and definitude. After the day’s business in the ancient city of Syracuse is concluded, perhaps filled with drawing circles in its dusty roads, mathematician and inventor Archimedes is drawn a warm bath. His body sinks lazily into the tub, where Archimedes observes the water rise as the weight of his body displaces it. For those sticklers of accurate formulation, Archimedes discovered the principle that bears his name, which states that “a body immersed in a fluid experiences an upthrust equal to the weight of the displaced liquid”. Before the great man could begin to prune, Archimedes’s face is lit by discovery  and excitement as he leans forward, leaps from the tub, and runs naked through Syracuse, all the while hollering “Eureka!” (literally, “I have found it“). While this striking chestnut is almost certainly exaggerated, it is fitting that Archimedes exposed his excitement, and a whole lot more, to his fellow citizens. Plutarch tells us that Archimedes could get lost in his diagrams and formulae; perhaps ancient Syracuseans could stand to see a little skin when the bearer was a man of such vision, such a wealth of curiosity.

Eureka's stone nod to ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. Naked and at the centre of town, just the way Archimedes would want it.

Eureka’s stone (and later bronze) nod to ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. Naked and at the centre of town, just the way Archimedes would want it.

About 2,300 years later, this moment is immortalized in stone at the centre of the town of Eureka, of Syfy’s eponymous comedy series in its fifth season. Hidden in the dense woods of middle America, Eureka is funded by the Department of Defense and inhabited entirely by geniuses at the cutting edge of science and technology in their respective fields. From the gourmet chef who runs the town’s diner (Chris Gauthier) to the short-lived (but hilariously practical) expert dry cleaner, Eureka is populated with pioneers of all stripes and talents. When U.S. Marshall Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) and his troubled daughter Zoe (Jordan Hinson) discover Eureka accidentally, they realize that Eureka is an irresistible, tight-knit community. And it’s a community that needs them. Accepting a position as the Sheriff of Eureka, each week Carter untangles conundrums, sometimes criminal, of cosmic proportions. With his “average Joe” powers of observation and spluttering logic (envision a vocabulary that hinges on the word “thingy”), Sheriff Carter averts disaster time and time again. Teaming with polymathic geniuses Henry Deacon (Joe Morton), Allison Blake (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), and Deputy Sheriff Jo Lupo (Erica Cerra), Sheriff Carter protects a town that becomes his family.

Another representation of Archimedes's bath, during which he purportedly realized the method of accurately weighing the gold content in Syracusean king Hiero's crown.

Another representation of Archimedes’s bath, during which he purportedly realized the method of accurately weighing the gold content in Syracusean king Hiero II’s crown.

Mystery is a form of challenge with which Archimedes was intimately familiar. Living during the 3rd century BCE, Archimedes was educated partly in Alexandria, then the scholarly jewel of the ancient world with its magnificent museum and library and eclectic intelligentsia. Possibly studying under followers of Euclid, Archimedes cultivated “universal talent” (Barnes 442). By the time he began his employ in friend King Hiero II of Syracuse’s court Archimedes could boast talents as a mathematician (Archimedes was the first to calculate the approximate value of pi), astronomer (Archimedes’s father Pheidias was an astronomer by trade), engineer, and inventor (the “Screw of Archimedes” is still used in developing nations as a means of irrigation). Plutarch relates a number of occasions on which Archimedes astounds Hiero. Using a system of pulleys Archimedes drew a massive ship loaded with men and goods out of dry dock, a feat that otherwise would have necessitated the work of many men. Hiero was so captivated that he recruited Archimedes to create similar engines “offensive and defensive” for the brutal siege Rome had waged against Syracuse. Archimedes had to contend with Roman naval commander Marcellus, who by all accounts was “skilful in the art of war, of a strong body, valiant of hand, and by natural inclinations addicted to war”. Other historians report that Archimedes destroyed Roman ships by burning them with a gigantic magnifying glass. While an experiment conducted by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  proved proved the idea to be “feasible,” the Encyclopedia Britannica states that the tale is probably legend, albeit accurately reflecting Archimedes’s devotion to catoptrics.

Giuli Parigi's 1600 wall mural of Archimedes burning Roman military ships using a large lens. Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, Italy.

Giuli Parigi’s 1600 wall mural of Archimedes burning Roman military ships using a large lens. Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, Italy.

Despite Archimedes’s devotion to the king and people of Syracuse, and his production of machines that kept them safe against the Roman navy for years, Plutarch leaves us in no doubt of Archimedes’s love of pure mathematics over and above the creation of war machines:

Archimedes, by Jusepe de Ribera, 1630

Archimedes, by Jusepe de Ribera, 1630

Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific knowledge, that though these inventions had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life; studies, the superiority of which to all others is unquestioned, and in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, of the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration. It is not possible to find in all geometry more difficult and intricate questions, or more simple and lucid explanations.

While evidently Archimedes possessed a certain amount of autonomy in his own research, the scientists that work at Eureka’s sprawling research facility Global Dynamics find themselves bound to stakeholders beyond their own curiosity and ability. During Eureka’s 3rd season Global Dynamics’s devious corporate fixer/interim director Eva Thorne (a brutally fantastic Frances Fisher) is the embodiment of the bottom line-driven, profit-making demands on science. Sadly, this is a reality with which Canadian scientists and researchers are all too familiar, as hundreds of employees have been laid off in Canadian federal laboratories and other research facilities in the past year. The Conservative government’s 2012 budget was focussed on business-led, market-driven technology/research and natural resource development, leading to cuts at crucial labs and research centres, including food inspection labs in St. John’s, Newfoundland; the Cereal Research Centre; the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health; the National Water Research Institute; and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research; to name just a few. Commenting on the 2012 budget cuts that were a long-time in the making, executive director of Canadian Association of University Teachers James Turk stated that “the government has no understanding of how scientific advancement is made. No appreciation of blue-sky research”.

Henry Deacon (Joe Morton) and Sheriff Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) are on the case.

Mayor Henry Deacon (Joe Morton) and Sheriff Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) are on the case.

Since the town of Eureka is funded by a government military institution, Eurekan scientists are often called upon to create weapons or serve the military industrial complex in other ways. In such situations they, like Archimedes, are often pulled away from their own “blue-sky research”. Eureka’s writers and producers leave the audience in little doubt about their perspectives on military-driven research. General Mansfield (Barclay Hope), the DOD’s overseer of Global Dynamics and Eureka, is a domineering and uninspired man, who continually butts heads with Sheriff Carter and many of the Global Dynamics scientists. U.S. Senator Michaela Wen (Ming-Na Wen), while seemingly interested in the genius of Global Dynamic’s experts, is also firmly allied with the U.S. Government (and sometimes allied to herself alone). It is interesting that during the course of the series Eureka’s local mechanic Henry Deacon, perhaps the most curious, engaged, and “universally talented” townsperson, eventually holds the position of the head of Global Dynamics as well as Eureka’s mayor. In February 2012, professor of mathematics at Temple University and New York Times contributor John Allen Paulos questioned why the United States of America has never elected a scientist for the top government position. Paulos points out that Germany elected Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry (Merkel made a point of visiting Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University researchers and scientists during her 2012 visit to Canada). Paulos also documents Singapore’s election of Tony Tan, who has his own doctorate in applied mathematics, as well as China’s former president Hu Jintao’s degree in hydraulic engineering. China has since elected another scientist as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, who has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. Canada has not had a scientist as Prime Minister since Sir Dr. Charles Tupper, who received his medical degree from Edinburgh University and spent only 69 days as Prime Minister in 1869.

Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes, by Benjamin West, 1804

Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes, by Benjamin West, 1804

As much as Archimedes illuminated during his lifetime, he left us with some mysteries to uncover for ourselves. Plutarch relates that Archimedes requested that his tomb be marked with “a sphere containing a cylinder, inscribing it with the ratio which the containing solid bears to the contained”; a nod to one of his groundbreaking, and his favourite, mathematical proof. The Roman orator and statesman Cicero claimed to have discovered Archimedes’s tomb, marked with the very diagram requested by the mathematician. This anecdote is only an aside in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, wherein he muses on whether it is better to be a mathematician or a tyrant. Since the Roman orator was nothing if not the epitome of self-promotion, it is entirely possible that Cicero’s tale is a fabrication, particularly seeing as neither Polybius, Livy,  nor Plutarch mention this episode in their writings on Cicero (Simms 282-283). Despite the dubious nature of Cicero’s claim, many artists have canonized the Roman senator directing his men to pull aside the brambles and vines that cover Archimedes’s tomb. In a 1990 article J.B. Trapp, former director of the Warburg Institute, notes that many artists have struggled with the mathematical diagram atop Archimedes’s tomb (286-288). In American artist Benjamin West’s representation of Archimedes’s tomb, instead of the discrete cylinder within a sphere that Archimedes might have expected, West has painted a massive stone sphere resting upon an equally huge cylinder. The exact location of Archimedes’s tomb is currently unknown.

The Archimedes Palimpsest

The Archimedes Palimpsest

As noted above, Plutarch tells us that Archimedes wrote nothing of his discoveries or inventions, which makes every piece of information we have about him precious. Thus, when two heretofore undiscovered manuscripts of Archimedes’s work were discovered in the most extraordinary manner, mathematicians and bibliographers alike snapped to excited attention. Since 1998 Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum has been the proud steward of seven treatises by Archimedes, all found within the same codex, called the Archimedes Palimpsest.  A palimpsest is a manuscript that has had ink scraped off of it in order to write new information (the Greek word palimpsestos literally means “scraped again”). In the medieval period manuscript resources were scarce, and thus old paper would be recycled as changing tastes or needs required. In the Archimedes Palimpsest the information that was scraped off was Archimedes’s mathematical statements, and the newly cleaned manuscript was granted a new shelf life as a Byzantine prayer book, written in Greek. Scholars state that this Greek prayer book finished in April of 1229 and that the work was most likely completed in Jerusalem. They also estimate that the original Archimedes treatises, some of which anticipated the work of Sir Isaac Newton (Cannon 317) were copied into the manuscript during the second half of the tenth century, most likely in Constantinople. In 1907 J. L. Heiberg, a German expert in ancient Greek mathematics, stumbled upon the text and recognized its significance as the lost work of Archimedes (Wilson 61). Despite the serious damage incurred by the 1000-year old book, through a long and pain-staking process the Walters Art Museum’s conservators have been able to provide pages of the Archimedes Palimpsest to the imaging team, which has uncovered a trove of Archimedes’s work beneath the Greek prayers.

Using a method called pseudo-color technique imaging experts were able to retrieve Archimedes's proofs from beneath the ancient Greek prayers.

Using a method called the “pseudo-color technique” imaging experts were able to retrieve Archimedes’s proofs from beneath the ancient Greek prayers.

Of this arduous task Senior Conservator of Manuscripts and Rare Books Abigail Quandt has stated that “it took four years to just take the book apart and that was because of all the adhesive that was on the spine; and I had to go very slowly because there was Archimedes’s text right under that glue. It’s very important working on such a complicated manuscript to be an optimist, to know that somehow, either yourself or with the help of your colleagues, you’ll figure out answers to some of these problems”. In order to allow scholars and mathematicians to make heads or tails of Archimedes’s treatises, imaging experts were called upon to bring his work to the forefront using the latest technology. Just as mathematicians have followed in Archimedes’s footsteps, imaging expert Roger Easton felt a kinship with the original copyist of the manuscript: “I see myself working in concert with the scribe who copied these pages more than a thousand years ago. In a very real sense he was the imaging scientist of his day. He was trying to preserve this knowledge in the best way possible”. Using a series of techniques, Easton and his team have been able to provide scholars with the previously invisible words of Archimedes.

The Fields Medal, the highest honour that can be awarded to a mathematician, bears Archimedes's face.

The Fields Medal, the highest honour in the field of mathematics, bears Archimedes’s face.

After living a life of immense vigor and inquisitiveness, Archimedes left a legacy firmly planted in the minds of most every scientist in most every field. Galileo Galilei swore his intellectual fidelity to “‘superhuman Archimedes, whose name I never mention without a feeling of awe'” (Laird 629). Yet even the ingenious machinations of Archimedes could not withstand the Roman navy forever. In 212 BCE, Roman forces broke through Syracuse’s defenses, during the Second Punic War. Whether apocryphal or not, the story of Archimedes’s death is as apt and telling as any other myth concerning his pure devotion to mathematics. When a Roman soldier approached Archimedes drawing diagrams in the sand, Archimedes hardly looked up from his work but said, “Do not disturb my circles”. Able to give credit to a worthy foe where credit is due, Marcellus was apparently deeply upset that Archimedes had been slain. A worthy foe, and a worthy face to erect amongst geniuses, fictional or otherwise. This year Eureka is filming their fifth and final season. A sweet comedy series with a behemothic respect for curiosity and mystery, Eureka is a show and a community worth sharing  with excitement (naked or otherwise).


Albee, John. “Archimedes.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.2 (1881): 198. JSTOR. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Barnes, Jonathan. “Hellenistic Philosophy and Science.” The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Ed. John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Cannon, William J. “Archimedes Unbound.” Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society 87.4 (July-August 1999): 316-318. JSTOR. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Laird, W.R. “Archimedes Among the Humanists.” Isis 82.4 (1991): 628-638. JSTOR. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Simms, D.L. “The Trail for Archimedes’s Tomb.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtland Institutes 53 (1990): 281-286. JSTOR. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Trapp, J.B. “Archimedes’s Tomb and the Artists: A Postscript.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 53 (1990): 286-288. JSTOR. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Wilson, Nigel. “The Archimedes Palimpsest: A Progress Report.” The Journal of the Walters Art Museum 62, A Catalogue of Greek Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum and Essays in Honor of Gary Vikan (2004): 61-68. JSTOR. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.


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