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Archimedes Death Ray: Idea Feasibility Testing.
October 11, 2005 5:35 PM   Subscribe

Archimedes Death Ray: Idea Feasibility Testing. Ancient Greek and Roman historians recorded that during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, Archimedes (a notably smart person) constructed a burning glass to set the Roman warships, anchored within bow and arrow range, afire. The story has been much debated and oft dismissed as myth. TV's MythBusters were not able to replicate the feat and “busted” the myth. MIT students rock!
posted by mrkredo (52 comments total)

 
I need to create opportunities like this for myself. This does, indeed, rock.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:39 PM on October 11, 2005


A previous attempt covered here and asavage references his attempt.
posted by karmaville at 5:50 PM on October 11, 2005


Kind of brings new life to the phrase, "it's all done with mirrors". Very cool.
posted by j.p. Hung at 5:53 PM on October 11, 2005


That is the coolest! They had better damned well be working on some video for this.
posted by fenriq at 5:54 PM on October 11, 2005


I've always wanted to do this on the spy cameras the city put up to surveil demonstrations at the federal building. 500 godless hippies with pocket mirrors. Heh.
posted by warbaby at 5:54 PM on October 11, 2005 [1 favorite]


Heh.
posted by delmoi at 5:54 PM on October 11, 2005


It still seems very impractical.
posted by delmoi at 5:54 PM on October 11, 2005


MIT is the center of the universe in regards to all things cool. Every time something really, really, cool happens, they are involved somehow.

Too bad they only accept 6 transfers each year :-(
posted by phrontist at 5:56 PM on October 11, 2005


Not if you have an army of well trained monkeys, it isn't, delmoi.
posted by fenriq at 5:57 PM on October 11, 2005


Ants everywhere are thinking the ant equivalent of "Well, duh!"
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:58 PM on October 11, 2005


Even more useful as an extreme long distance signalling device, I would think - among all kinds of other uses. Given that technique and a big crew well-trained to implement it, I wonder what kind of list of potential applications a brainstorming Archimedes could come up with. Could the lighthouse at Alexandria really have been a means of communicating to ships on the far side of the Mediterranean?
posted by nromanek at 6:06 PM on October 11, 2005


"we can confirm that Iraq's WMD programs were, in fact, alive and well prior to the invasion. Today, a large warehouse filled with (gasp) mirrors was discovered. A team of special forces removed the reflective backings and now I can report - America is safe once again" W.
posted by j.p. Hung at 6:09 PM on October 11, 2005


Mythbusters is awesome and greatly slows down my productivity around lunchtime. If those guys don't post here, there must be at least someone that looks a bit like them.
posted by fire&wings at 6:11 PM on October 11, 2005


Man, I was hoping that this was about Archimedes Plutonium.
posted by cortex at 6:19 PM on October 11, 2005


Personally, I'm getting sick and tired of seeing this same story linked absolutely everywhere a few days after it appears on the last site.
posted by nightchrome at 6:27 PM on October 11, 2005


Paging Adam Savage.
posted by riffola at 6:28 PM on October 11, 2005


It still seems very impractical.

In the days of seige warfare -- before modern artillery -- armies made up for their lack of destructive weaponry by getting a large number of people cooperate to cause large destructive effects. It seems very impractical use thousands of troops to dig a tunnel under city walls or build a bridge over to an island an army wanted to invade, too, but those were also common strategies.

Eventually, though, the Romans and Greeks discovered Greek Fire, a much faster method for setting ships on fire.
posted by deanc at 6:28 PM on October 11, 2005


Dean: Hell, Alexander built a fucking peninsula once. If you wanted it done and didn't mind having thousands of people die, you could get just about anything accomplished.
posted by klangklangston at 6:31 PM on October 11, 2005


MIT is the center of the universe in regards to all things cool. Every time something really, really, cool happens, they are involved somehow.

Too bad they only accept 6 transfers each year :-(


Um, I wouldn't go that far. The graduate programs maybe, but the undergrads are mostly obedient little sheep whose latest discovery is having ones own, personal stick of deodorant.
posted by jsavimbi at 6:34 PM on October 11, 2005


the undergrads are mostly obedient little sheep

From the first link: "When the 2.009 class was given a 5 minute challenge to assess technical feasibility, about 95% (of 80 students) deemed the death ray infeasible. In a democracy this would probably doom the idea. However, since ‘the bosses’ thought it might work, further exploration and sketch model tests to learn more were merited."

jsavimbi gets a gold star!
posted by anarcation at 7:05 PM on October 11, 2005


jsavimbi: you'll notice that this is an undergrad class. The Archimedes thing appeared on a homework, and one of the students challenged it (as heard from one of the guys who built the boat).

Keep in mind that the professor or TA maintains the website. Honestly though, I won't defend the sheep thing too much, because MIT has been selecting for Millenials, who the Dean of Admissions categorizes as a generation that need hand-holding, fewer choices, and.. .I'd rather not go on. Try as they might, they're still getting a non-zero number of thinking undergrads, and they're the ones still doing neat things.
posted by whatzit at 7:11 PM on October 11, 2005


MIT ... heh ... What are MIT's school colors?

(!etercnoC dna doolB)
posted by R. Mutt at 7:15 PM on October 11, 2005


Metafilter: If you want it done and didn't mind having thousands of people die, you could get just about anything accomplished.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:15 PM on October 11, 2005


OK, everybody has five minutes to assess/disprove the feasibility of instantaneous locus-to-locus (not point-to-point) matter transport of massive three-dimensional objects.

Because it would be cool and change everything.
posted by longsleeves at 7:28 PM on October 11, 2005


Yikes! my post was not related to Zenmasters post above.
posted by longsleeves at 7:31 PM on October 11, 2005


Locusts are too small to transport massive objects.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:35 PM on October 11, 2005


Locusts are too small to transport massive objects.

Ha! Wrong! Tee hee. Ok. look up mass. (he he).
posted by longsleeves at 7:50 PM on October 11, 2005


I bet they could have managed it with one of these.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:54 PM on October 11, 2005


longsleeves didn't go to MIT, or did he/she? Hmmm.
posted by snsranch at 7:59 PM on October 11, 2005


Although Archimedes didn't have access to Fresnel Lenses, anybody who's played with one would certainly assess the feasability as, er, feasible.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:20 PM on October 11, 2005


Archimede rules.
posted by mrkredo at 8:51 PM on October 11, 2005


"Archimede rules."

If you've ever worked through Archimedes's work, in particular his boyuancy and fluid pressure work and related, this is immediately obvious and his genius is stunning. What's so beautiful about it is that, like so many examples of foundational works of true genius, his discoveries are elegant and very deeply insightful and often counterintuitive. How many people are aware, explicitly, that fluid pressure under gravity is simply and only a product of the diameter of the opening of the container and the height of the column of fluid above it? This is a specific, but common in daily life, implication of a more abstract principle.

Similarly, one of my favorite advances in western science was when Pascal applied these ideas to atmospheric pressure and reached very counterintuitive conclusions that contradicted millenia of accepted truth and which was directly implicit in Archimedes's work if only someone before him had thought of atmospheric pressure in these terms.

It's a joy to read most of these historic thinkers, but a few of them stand out from the rest. I've always felt Archimedes is one of them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:13 PM on October 11, 2005


Screw Archimedes!
posted by wsg at 9:34 PM on October 11, 2005


Adam Savage here.

Hi all!

The guys from MIT did great work, and I'm glad they saw some fire where we did not. They were also real nice (we all appreciated it around here) not to say that they thought we were fools. We can be, but it's nice not to bring it up in mixed company. I'm also pleasantly surprised at the play this story has gotten. Saw it on Fark, BoingBoing, AND Slashdot. Now here.

I stand by the position that we never said that the myth was busted because we couldn't do it. Just that as weapons go, it seemed far to cumbersome to be effective, especially since there were very effective weapons that could shoot farther, that the walls of Syracuse that the romans were attacking faced the west (so the weapon would only be effective in the afternoon) and that setting fire to a moving, wet object with a weapon that by it's nature would HAVE to be huge AND has a fixed focal length, is no easy trick.

There, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it. I lurk around here as much as I can. Thanks for the kind words about the show.


All that being said, we're working on some other Archimedes stuff right now in fact (goddamn genius). You should see the results in a couple months time.

Cheers mefites!

Adam (anyone got a sattelite dish that I can have?)Savage
posted by asavage at 10:50 PM on October 11, 2005 [1 favorite]


Can I just say that it's fucking badass that Adam Savage has started posting here...
posted by SweetJesus at 11:12 PM on October 11, 2005


I'm in SF and have plenty of time on my hands. You know, in case Mythbusters needs free labor of the crafty variety...
posted by cali at 11:41 PM on October 11, 2005


whatzit, have you listened to anything Marilee Jones's said in the years since that article came out? The Admissions Dept. is actually the area of the administration that is most supportive towards student culture and 'MIT-type students' the most these days. Actually, if you read New Kids on the Block, you'll notice that it's less a recommendation saying "we should admit these kids" and more a commentary saying "this generation displays a lot of these traits - we're going to have to figure out how to work with them." These days, Admissions has been emphasizing that they're specifically trying to admit MIT-type students, rather than generic millenials. Might be working - in the past few years, there seems to have been a rise in interest in some of the more stereotypically MIT dorms, like EC. [shrugs] I think some of the cynicism is unwarrented - this coming from someone who's spent more time dealing with MIT admins than anyone should have to.

If you'll pardon me for the continued tangent, I do disagree rather strenuously with jsavimbi's assertion that MIT undergrads are "just a bunch of sheep." Most of the students at MIT are like most of the students at any top university, albeit with the common thread that they tend to be particularly interested in math, science, or engineering. Perhaps you think undergrads at most universities are sheep - and I'm sure there's some truth to that. But MIT undergrads are certainly no _worse_ than, say, UChicago or Harvard or Hopkins undergrads. However, [based on an admittedly entirely unscientific survey of people I've known at MIT and other universities,] MIT kids seem to be more likely to be working on research projects of their own rather than just dish-washing, and they seem to be more likely to do semi-serious science/engineering stuff in what free time they have. I'm not sure what's so ovine about that. The stick of deoderant crack is a pretty lame shot, by the way. The unwashed-autistic-geek thing is ancient by now [perhaps it's time to look for a new joke?] and if you knew many MIT undergrads, you'd know that it's applicable to at most a vanishingly small number of 'em, all of whom I have apparently never come across...

posted by ubersturm at 11:46 PM on October 11, 2005


asavage:

I love MythBusters. But the Archimedes "death ray" episode is one (of a small few - all the rest are spot on) that had me howling at the screen towards the end. But I guess not annoyed enough to actually write a letter or something.

That and it left me wishing for some sane way to do a "real" MythBusters broadcast show in realtime that had some kind of interactivity or hands-on capability to offer suggestions, tweaks, hacks and such as the need arose without taking away from the show's linearity and "showness", as it were.

I'm glad MIT was able to bust the bust. That one has been driving me nuts for months now.

Anyway. Welcome to MetaFilter, Adam. Oh, and this'll be annoying and pointless, but if it doesn't get you fired can you please tell the Discovery Network wonks that their network(s) suck ass now? What happened to the real Nova-esque science programming? If I see one more Orange Coast Choppers related show my head's going to explode like an over-ripe melon exposed to a hard vaccum. Or like a cement mixer truck full of high explosives.
posted by loquacious at 12:17 AM on October 12, 2005


Best obscure celebrity Mefi member ever!! Welcome!
posted by fire&wings at 4:00 AM on October 12, 2005


Of course MIT Undergrads built a deathray. They need something like that just incase the Atomic Monster the grads create goes horribly awry.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:34 AM on October 12, 2005


...setting fire to a moving, wet object...

A calm day, a ship at anchor, a target area just above the water line, a dozy unsuspecting crew, a wicked Mediterranean sun....

(Were the Romans caulking seams with pitch at that stage? A quick search is inconclusive, but if they were, well, so much the easier.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:03 AM on October 12, 2005


In retrospect, imagining 2000+ troops with mirrors of polished metal on a bright Mediterranean afternoon doesn't seem all that far-fetched. I'd love to see the Mythbusters, or MIT undergrads, or anybody figure out what Greek fire was, though.
posted by alumshubby at 6:32 AM on October 12, 2005


ubersturm, True, that the best way to put it is -no worse than anywhere else-. You're right that there has been more push for/acceptance of things not in the norm in the last year or two, and perhaps it's just a cycle that we haven't been around long enough to witness full-swing. Some of the recent admin support/turning-a-blind-eye-to has been downright surreal (e.g. CPW banner). But, for a couple years there, it looked like the institvte was headed for bland-dom, in terms of its unique culture. In any case, perhaps it's just a cycle.
posted by whatzit at 7:16 AM on October 12, 2005


BBC & Open University did this earlier this year. I haven't found any online video, though I suspect some can be found.

Of course, the Brits made it work... (here's a pic)
posted by dash_slot- at 10:57 AM on October 12, 2005


Seconding loquacious's complaint about the Discovery Channel (and TLC). I am sick unto death of custom bikes and home-makeover shows, and I'm a homeowner and biker. Don't get me started on the conversion of the Wings Channel to The Warmonger Military Channel.

More Mythbuser-style Fun With Science is needed.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:06 PM on October 12, 2005


Legend usually has a lot of exaggeration around a kernel of truth. Like Adam (heh, nice bit of namedropping) I am rather sceptical about the claim that boats were actually set ablaze using this method, if only because this would have also required the crews to stay completely passive when a couple of buckets of water would have easily solved the matter.

However, Marcellus' boats would have been mostly open-decked, and pointing those intense beams of light towards the decks, while probably not setting anything on fire, would surely have made things rather uncomfortable for the people standing there. The Sicilian sun is already scorching enough as it is (yup, Syracuse is in Sicily, not Greece, as the writer of the originally linked article appears to believe).
posted by Skeptic at 2:00 PM on October 12, 2005


Skeptic: Yep, I would assume they only needed to do it once; after that it was mainly a deterrent to keep the boats out of weapons or landing range. The crews were no doubt familiar with the risk of fire itself, and all it would take would be the hint of smoke to send them into a panic. Of course this might only work for a while, but it would still buy the Greeks time.

I didn't see where they thought Syracuse wasn't in Sicily.

I'd love to see the Mythbusters, or MIT undergrads, or anybody figure out what Greek fire was, though.

Seconded. Obviously some kind of pre-industrial napalm, but with characteristics unreplicable to this day. Unfortunately this is a less "testable" conundrum, as while we can certainly create napalm, we may never be able to know if it's the right answer.
posted by dhartung at 8:19 PM on October 12, 2005


"...if it doesn't get you fired can you please tell the Discovery Network wonks that their network(s) suck ass now? "

If you can't tell Discovery their network sucks, would you be willing to tackle "If I see one more Orange Coast Choppers related show my head's going to explode like an over-ripe melon exposed to a hard vaccum. Or like a cement mixer truck full of high explosives."?

That would be an AWESOME episode.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:54 PM on October 13, 2005


you rock! could you please do an episode about the myth that arguing on the internet accomplishes something?
posted by shmegegge at 12:43 AM on October 14, 2005 [1 favorite]


Just want to mention that Adam's been here for a few months now (in, I suppose, relative obscurity), primarily answering questions in AskMe (if memory serves).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:09 AM on October 14, 2005


Update for anyone still watching this: 7 of the folks involved in the Archimedes myth-busting-busting, professors and students, are being flown out to film somethiing for the show, probably a redux of the boat, but I didn't get a chance to ask.
posted by whatzit at 4:46 PM on October 18, 2005


I heard the same thing on an NPR story this morning. (Them going on Mythbusters was the only new info though.)
posted by smackfu at 6:47 AM on October 19, 2005


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