In De Architectura
(known in English as The Ten Books of Architecture
) Roman architect Marcus
Vitruvius Pollio has given us the famous "Eureka" story having to do with Archimedes. The Sage of
Syracuse was charged by King Hiero with determining whether or not the monarch's golden crown
really had all the original gold consigned to the smith for the job or whether the artisan had pulled a
fast one by adulterating the gold with silver so he could keep some of the good stuff for himself.
How could you tell? Not to worry, said Archy.
Shortly thereafter in the public baths, Archimedes lowered himself into the water and noticed the
displaced water flowing over the rim of the bath, whereupon he is said to have run butt naked out
into the streets of Syracuse screaming "Eureka"--"I have found it!" Obviously not the changing
room, but the principle of physics now named for him: "A body immersed in a fluid is buoyed up
by a force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid." Then, in a scene right out of C.S.I. Syracuse,
Archimedes got a tub of water, some gold and silver, splashed around a bit, and noticed that the
crown and a lump of gold equal to the original amount did not displace the same amount of water;
thus, the artisan had mixed in some silver, a lighter metal than gold. He swindled the king.
Vitruvius does not tell us what happened to ye Royal Crown Maker, but it probably wasn't
That single word, "Eureka," is now synonymous with "great discovery" and is the name of the
newest exhibit running (through Jan. 9, 2006) at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
The exhibit is subtitled "The Genius of the Ancients" and is devoted to the science and technology
of ancient Greece.
Whoever wrote the brochure starts, amazingly, with, "Few [sic!] remember that the Greeks
preceded us in many fields of knowledge, ranging from geometry to medicine, from optics to
astronomy; many modern theories derive from their studies, as do many applications considered for
centuries real miracles, used for enjoyment, art, beauty, religion and work."
I don't know that "few remember". I thought everyone remembered. In any event, if you don't, now
is the time to do some serious refreshing. The exhibit covers much of the ground floor of the
museum, purposefully spilling into an outdoor space meant to simulate the Greek agora
, the place
of assembly, the market place. There are wall displays, hands-on machines and working models,
extensive descriptions of ancient Greek steam machinery, watches, musical and astronomical
instruments, as well as exhibits on life at court, theatre, religion, medicine and botany--even a
reconstruction of the Lighthouse at Alexandria (center illustration, right), one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There is a
section given over to the empire and influence of Alexander and the existence of the great libraries
at Alexandria, Athens and Pergamon.
To augment the display, the exhibit has some items from foreign museums, such as a terracotta oil-
lamp in the form of a water-organ from the Louvre, and has dipped into its own substantial collection of
Greek items that are on permanent display in Naples, anyway, such as the Farnese Atlas (bottom photo, right).