You’ll find many authoritative sources telling you unequivocally that Archimedes’ father was an astronomer. Have you ever wondered how good the evidence for this claim is? The question itself has wider implications for our pursuit of knowledge.
Casual readers are usually too busy to discover how much evidence for ‘facts.’ At one level this is perfectly rational – if we had to research carefully the source of every fact in our possession, we’d have no time to do anything else. But in science, it can mean the difference between hero and zero.
In Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman tells the tale of how he came to discover a law of nature: he discovered how an atom decays when it emits a beta-particle. He made his discovery at about the same time as other physicists did.
He would have got there first if only he’d ignored physics textbooks; he made his breakthrough only when he assumed the books were wrong, as indeed they were.
Feynman traced the source of the error and was astonished: it was a paper published in the journal Physical Review. Feynman realized he had read this paper years earlier, looked at the graph the paper’s claims were founded on, and said to himself: “That doesn’t prove anything.”
If only he’d remembered that when he needed to!
Anyway, getting back to Archimedes and his dad.
In Ancient Greece, people:
- wrote everything in capital letters (majuscule) because small ones (miniscule) hadn’t been invented
- didn’t put spaces between words
- didn’t punctuate
In the case of Archimedes, we should really consider ourselves lucky that anything has survived at all; his words, numbers, and diagrams, written on parchment scrolls in the third century BC, have come to us after being copied and re-copied a large number of times. With each new copy, new errors were almost invariably introduced by a scribe – like children playing a game of telephone.
When someone first had the bright idea of introducing word spacings, scribes copying ancient screeds needed to decide where the spacings should be placed, providing new opportunities to introduce errors.
Which brings us back to Archimedes’ father. In the first translation into English, a surviving document copied by a scribe seemed to say:
“Phidias of Akoupatros, who was an astronomer…”
The trouble with this translation is that nobody had heard of anywhere called Akoupatros. So translators tried alternative translations. Eventually they replaced the ‘k’ in ‘akoupatros’ with an ‘m’ and changed the word spacing with the result that the original:
“pheidia tou akoupatros”
(In English: Phidias of Akoupatros)
“pheidia tou amou patros”
(In English: Phidias my father)
And that’s why we believe Archimedes’ father was an astronomer.
Realizing how hard scientists – in this case linguists – often have to fight for so many of the facts we take for granted can be a humbling experience. You’ll have to make your own mind up about whether they got this one right!
Author of this page: The Doc
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Reviel Netz, William Noel
The Archimedes Codex: Revealing The Secrets Of The World’s Greatest Palimpsest