If we lived in a world where things never changed, there would be no science because there would be nothing to figure out. If we lived in a world where things changed randomly, there would be no science because everything would appear too complicated to work out anything from the chaos. Fortunately (and probably inevitably) we live in a universe where things do change, but slowly, according to fixed laws of nature: When I throw a stick up in the air, it always comes down. If the sun sets in the west, it always rises again in the east. The laws of nature can be notices, then figured out and explored. In doing so we have improved and enriched our lives.
But the secrets of nature are sometimes not at all obvious and not revealed to us easily. In history we have had to rely on the reasoning, insight and often chance, of a small number of great thinkers for them to have been discovered.
Many of these momentous discoveries were often made by one solitary person, alone with their thoughts. What could have possibly made them think of such things that no one else had ever thought of before? What made them hit upon the right answer? Was it luck, divine inspiration, thoughtful reasoning, a zest for experiment or a finely tuned creative mind?
Some world changing discoveries were made more easily than others, some made against a forceful wall of oppression.
This the story of Archimedes‘ revelation as he quite ordinarily and casually took a bath.
According to what we now call ‘Archimedes’ principle’, the specific gravity of every component is inversely proportional to the volume of water it displaces. Put another way this means that if you put something in a bath, the volume of water that spills over the edge will be the same volume of the thing you dropped in the bath… It sounds obvious now, but before Archimedes took that bath, the only way anyone could tell how much of something you had, was to weigh it. We know that gold is heavier than silver. But what if gold and silver had been melted together? How would you know how much gold you had then? You’d have to melt it down. But what if it had been made into a crown, how could you tell without melting the crown down?
The detailed account of Archimedes’ bath-time joy that we have today was written by the great Roman architect Vitruvius who lived during the reign of Augustus, around about the beginning of the Christian era, which although was about two centuries after the event, was based on long held traditional accounts and few historians have any real cause to doubt its accuracy.
So Vitruvius takes up the story.
“When Hieron reigned over Syracuse, this prince, being fortunately blessed in all his enterprises, vowed a temple offering to the immortal gods of a crown of gold. He agreed with a craftsman what sum should go into it’s making and weighed it out in gold. This artisan delivered his work to the king on the appointed day, who found it executed perfectly well. On weighing the crown it appeared to be of the same weight as the gold that had been issued; but a test suggested that the worker had retained a part of the gold, which he had replaced with silver in the crown.
“The king was very irate at being tricked in this way, but lacking the means of convicting the worker of theft, he asked Archimedes to devise one. Archimedes, while wholly absorbed in this matter, took a bath one day, and noticed that as he immersed himself in the tub, the water spilled over. This observation led him to the desired discovery, and he was so overcome by joy that he rushed out of the bath and, running naked through the house he began shouting that he had discovered what he had sought, which in Greek is ‘eureka, eureka, I have found it, I have found it!’”
What he had actually found was simply a rise in the water level. An obviously ordinary, everyday event, and yet he thought of using the effect in an experiment. He took the crown, and a equal mass of gold and of silver and placed them all in equal volumes of water and found that the crown caused a rise in the water level greater than that of the gold, but less than that of silver. Because silver is lighter than gold, the amount of silver needed to match the weight of gold would have been slightly larger, with a slightly larger volume and therefore displaced more water. This proved how much silver had been used in making the crown, replacing some of the king’s gold. Archimedes correctly disclosed that the worker had been a swindler after all.
The fate of the worker is unknown. There’s probably another law which states that the punishment he received was directly proportional to the cleverness of Archimedes’ discovery and that the subsequent metal the craftsman had to deal with would have been a blade that cut his throat.
Archimedes went on to invent a way of getting water to move uphill, a ray gun that would destroy distant ships as well as many mathematical methods.
But what can we learn from his bath discovery? Perhaps that the answers to our problems are often right in front of us – it’s our ability to recognise them as such which is the key.
It’s also no coincidence that Archimedes was in an intuitive creative state in his bath – aren’t we all…
Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.
Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.
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