Jürgen Schmidhuber
ARCHIMEDES (287-212 B.C.)
Greatest Scientist Ever?
National Museum Naples
Math is the "queen of sciences," and Archimedes is widely regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians ever - perhaps the most influential of them all. As if that were not enough, he is also regarded as the father of mathematical physics and engineering, having created many widely used machines and construction principles. No other scientist or inventor has produced as many essential breakthroughs in both theory and practice. All subsequent geniuses have stood on his shoulders.
Archimedes was the first to introduce infinitesimals, the foundation of calculus. He described the first infinite geometric progression, computed the area and volume of the sphere and the area of parabola segments, invented a positional numeral system, created the fields of statics and hydrostatics, discovered the laws of the lever, buoyancy, fluid equilibria, density, the center of gravity, etc.
sphere volume, catapult, Archimedes screw
Above: National Museum of Naples
Archimedes, by Domenico Fetti, 1620, Art Museum Alte Meister in Dresden
Archimedes also invented the spiral pump (still widely used for irrigation in many countries) as well as war machines such as improved catapults, ray cannons based on focused sun beams, land-based cranes to lift and sink attacking ships, etc.

Left: Archimedes, by Domenico Fetti (1620, Art Museum Alte Meister in Dresden).

Death of Archimedes - Staedelsches Kunstinstitut,  Frankfurt
A Roman soldier killed Archimedes after the fall of Syracuse (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt).

Many writings of Archimedes were lost through the burning of the Library of Alexandria, but the surviving work was sufficient to cement his preeminent place in the history of science and technology.

Fibonacci web design

Was Archimedes really the greatest scientist ever? Let us have a look at his potential competitors. Some say Gauss was not only the most influential mathematician since antiquity but also of all time. Of course it is hard to compare ancient and more recent breakthroughs, but even if the fans of Gauss were right, Archimedes' work would have more total impact as he also layed the foundations of physics and mathematical engineering. Euclid's achievements also do not quite match those of Archimedes. Although his book on geometry has been called the most influential scientific book ever, it is a compendium of results by numerous researchers, not just one. What about Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, frequently called the three greatest physicists since antiquity? Galileo is known as the "father of modern physics", Newton brought the field to a culmination point through his Principia Mathematica (often called the most influential book in the history of physics), and Einstein provided the next such peak in form of his Theory of General Relativity (the "greatest scientific discovery ever", according to Dirac; Einstein also was voted greatest physicist ever in a poll for Physics World magazine; source: BBC News, 29 Nov 1999). But it was Archimedes who provided the basic tools that made the later discoveries possible. Thus his work had more leverage and was more all-encompassing, combining major theoretical and practical advances in a way unmatched by his successors. His achievements also compare favorably to those of other great pioneers such as Leibniz, who layed the foundations of computer science and (with Newton) extended Archimedes' and Madhava of Sangamagrama's (14th century) work on infinitesimals and calculus.

While the work of Archimedes was essential for all later mathematicians and physicists, it was less relevant to biologists such as Mendel (father of genetics), Darwin & Wallace, (evolution theory), and especially Pasteur, whose work on the germ theory of disease (with Koch) has earned him the title "greatest benefactor of mankind" in the eyes of some commentators. However, biology and other relatively young, "soft" scientific disciplines do not yet have the same general standing as the hard sciences, notably math and physics. History will show whether they will eventually receive the same respect.

Without diminuishing the enormous contributions of the science heroes mentioned above, it is fair to say that those of Archimedes embody an even greater conceptual jump size, given his lower starting point defined by the more limited prior knowledge of his era. Of course the work of early pioneers tends to have more time to unfold its impact; Archimedes was lucky to live at a time when a single person could still make world-changing discoveries in quite diverse areas, with little competition by peers, as there weren't many scientists and inventors back then. But that is also the very reason why Archimedes was so unique and outstanding.

Formal Science was born in Ancient Greece, and Archimedes was its prophet. Give me a lever and a place to stand on, he said, and I can move the earth. And he did - today we still feel his impact through a lever spanning 2200+ years of Archimedes-inspired science.

Jürgen Schmidhuber, August 2006