Monday, April 16th, 2012

Archimedes The Sicilian, by Jacob Sager Weinstein

Archimedes? Sure. Nice kid when he was little. Then he accepted an assortment of internally consistent but morally problematic logical postulates, and the next thing you know, he was running numbers for the local mob. At first it was just the lower primes — 3, 5, sometimes a 7 or an 11 — but pretty soon it was the big ones. You wanted to know if 2^32582657-1 was divisible by anything other than itself and one, Archimedes was the man to see.

And not just rational numbers, either. One time, I remember, the cops wanted to know the last digit of pi, but Archimedes wouldn’t squeal. As far as the local boys were concerned, that proved Archimedes had what they called “philosopher’s stones.”

About that time, Hiero II, ruler of Syracuse and mightiest tyrant of the Hellenic world, was big into drug smuggling. (In fact, they used to call it “hieroin,” until Hiero tweaked the spelling a little on the advice of his lawyers.) His majesty smuggled 500 kilograms of raw opium into Sicily in the shape of a golden crown. Then he got it mixed up with his actual crown during a particularly wild party. When he woke up bleary-eyed the next day, he didn’t know which crown to girt his brow with as symbol of just authority, and which one to melt down and sell to junkies.

He mentioned it to Archimedes, who figured out the solution while he was drowning a witness in his bathtub. Archimedes was so excited that he let the witness go, and the guy ran down the street dripping wet, yelling “Eureka!” which means “For the love of God, call the police.” Archimedes didn’t care — he had discovered that the volume of an irregular object was directly proportional to its degree of displacement. From that moment on, he was a made man.

Then one of his extortion schemes went bad — something about finding a lever long enough, and a place to stand. Archimedes had to hotfoot it out of Sicily. He ended up in Athens, which was the center of not just the international drug trade but all the other branches of philosophy as well: geometry, prostitution, situational ethics. The local cops — the ones who weren’t already on the philosophers’ payroll — were totally outclassed. Every once in a while, they’d haul in Socrates, the capo di tutti capo, but he’d respond to their questions with other, more probing questions, and ultimately they’d have to admit that not only had their chief witness mysteriously disappeared, but they were unable to define the very nature of justice.

Socrates had heard that Archimedes had invented a convex mirror that could be used to focus light on a distant target, like an invading Punic fleet, or a warehouse you had an insurance policy on. Socrates was hoping to use it to take care of informants, but there were two important things he didn’t know.

The first thing was that Archimedes’ Mirror was entirely apocryphal. Now, you start in using apocryphal items, and the next thing you know, your entire life is just a series of facts erroneously conflated from the biographies of other historical figures of more certain provenance. Even a bad-ass like Socrates wasn’t going to touch that stuff.

The second thing Socrates didn’t know was that Archimedes was plotting to rub him out like a faulty geometric figure in day-old sand. The only thing stopping him was the advice of Zeno of Elea, who told Archimedes that before he could kill Socrates, he’d have to kill half his bodyguards. Then he’d have to kill half of the bodyguards left, and half the bodyguards left after that, and so on, ad infinitum.

Things stayed at a standstill for several months, until Archimedes got his hands on some pure-grade Columbian hemlock. And then… Well, let’s just say the rest is left as an exercise for the reader.

Jacob Sager Weinstein's work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeneys, and The Onion, but what he really wants to do is tweet. His new book is How Not To Kill Your Baby.

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