ARCHIMEDES (c.287 – c.212 BC)

Third Century BCE – Syracuse (a Greek city in Sicily)

‘Archimedes’ Screw – a device used to pump water out of ships and to irrigate fields’

Archimedes investigated the principles of static mechanics and pycnometry (the measurement of the volume or density of an object). He was responsible for the science of hydrostatics, the study of the displacement of bodies in water.

Archimedes’ Principle

Buoyancy – ‘A body fully or partially immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the body’
The upthrust (upward force) on a floating object such as a ship is the same as the weight of water it displaces. The volume of the displaced liquid is the same as the volume of the immersed object. This is why an object will float. When an object is immersed in water, its weight pulls it down, but the water, as Archimedes realised, pushes back up with a force that is equal to the weight of water the object pushes out-of-the-way. The object sinks until its weight is equal to the upthrust of the water, at which point it floats.
Objects that weigh less than the water displaced will float and objects that weigh more will sink. Archimedes showed this to be a precise and easily calculated mathematical principle.

Syracuse’s King Hiero, suspecting that the goldsmith had not made his crown of pure gold as instructed, asked Archimedes to find out the truth without damaging the crown.

Archimedes first immersed in water a piece of gold that weighed the same as the crown and pointed out the subsequent rise in water level. He then immersed the crown and showed that the water level was higher than before. This meant that the crown must have a greater volume than the gold, even though it was the same weight. Therefore it could not be pure gold and Archimedes thus concluded that the goldsmith had substituted some gold with a metal of lesser density such as silver. The fraudulent goldsmith was executed.

Archimedes came to understand and explain the principles behind the compound pulley, windlass, wedge and screw, as well as finding ways to determine the centre of gravity of objects.
He showed that the ratio of weights to one another on each end of a balance goes down in exact mathematical proportion to the distance from the pivot of the balance.

Perhaps the most important inventions to his peers were the devices created during the Roman siege of Syracuse in the second Punic war.

He was killed by a Roman soldier during the sack of the city.

Π The Greek symbol pi (enclosed in a picture of an apple) - Pi is a name given to the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameterPi

‘All circles are similar and the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle is always the same number, known as the constant, Pi’


The Greek tradition disdained the practical.  Following PLATO the Greeks believed pure mathematics was the key to the perfect truth that lay behind the imperfect real world, so that anything that could not be completely worked out with a ruler and compass and elegant calculations was not true.

In the eighteenth century AD the Swiss mathematician LEONHARD EULER was the first person to use the letter  Π , the initial letter of the Greek word for perimeter, to represent this ratio.

The earliest reference to the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter is an Egyptian papyrus written in 1650 BCE, but Archimedes first calculated the most accurate value.

He calculated Pi to be 22/7, a figure which was widely used for the next 1500 years. His value lies between 3 1/2 and 3 10/71, or between 3.142 and 3.141 accurate to two decimal places.

‘The Method of Exhaustion – an integral-like limiting process used to compute the area and volume of two-dimensional lamina and three-dimensional solids’

Archimedes realised how much could be achieved through practical approximations, or, as the Greeks called them, mechanics. He was able to calculate the approximate area of a circle by first working out the area of the biggest hexagon that would fit inside it and then the area of the smallest that would fit around it, with the idea in mind that the area of the circle must lie approximately halfway between.

By going from hexagons to polygons with 96 sides, he could narrow the margin for error considerably. In the same way he worked out the approximate area contained by all kinds of different curves from the area of rectangles fitted into the curve. The smaller and more numerous the rectangles, the closer to the right figure the approximation became.

This is the basis of what thousands of years later came to be called integral calculus.
Archimedes’ reckonings were later used by Kepler, Fermat, Leibniz and Newton.

In his treatise ‘On the Sphere and the Cylinder’, Archimedes was the first to deduce that the volume of a sphere is 4/3 Pi r3  where r  is the radius.

He also deduced that a sphere’s surface area can be worked out by multiplying that of its greatest circle by four; or, similarly, a sphere’s volume is two-thirds that of its circumscribing cylinder.

Like the square and cube roots of 2, Pi is an irrational number; it takes a never-ending string of digits to express Pi as a number.
It is impossible to find the exact value of Pi – however, the value can be calculated to any required degree of accuracy.
In 2002 Yasumasa Kanada (b.1949) of Tokyo University used a supercomputer with a memory of 1024GB to compute the value to 124,100,000,000 decimal places. It took 602 hours to perform the calculation.

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1755 – Switzerland

‘Analytical calculus – the study of infinite processes and their limits’

Swiss mathematician. His notation is even more far-reaching than that of LEIBNIZ and much of the mathematical notation that is in use to-day may be credited to Euler.

The number of theorems, equations and formulae named after him is enormous.
Euler made important discoveries in the analytic geometry of surfaces and the theory of differential equations.

Euler popularised the use of the symbol ‘Π‘ (Pi); e  , for the base of the natural logarithm; and i , for the imaginary unit.
Euler is credited with contributing the useful notations  f (x) , for the general function of x ; and  Σ , to indicate a general sum of terms.

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HIPPARCHUS (c.190 – c.125 BC)

134 BCE – Nicea, Turkey

‘Observation of a new star in the constellation Scorpio’

The ‘Precession of the Equinoxes’

By the time Hipparchus was born, astronomy was already an ancient art.

Hipparchus plotted a catalogue of the stars – despite warnings that he was thus guilty of impiety. Comparing his observations with earlier recordings from Babylonia he noted that the celestial pole changed over time.
He speculated that the stars are not fixed as had previously been thought and recorded the positions of 850 stars.

Hipparchus‘ astronomical calculations enabled him to plot the ecliptic, which is the path of the Sun through the sky. The ecliptic is at an angle to the Earth‘s equator, and crosses it at two points, the equinoxes (the astronomical event when the Sun is at zenith over the equator, marking the two occasions during the year when both hemispheres are at right angles to the Sun and day and night are of equal length).

The extreme positions of summer and winter mark the times in the Earth’s orbit where one of the hemispheres is directed towards or away from the Sun.


The Sun is furthest away at the solstices.

From his observations, he was able to make calculations on the length of the year.
There are several ways of measuring a year astronomically and Hipparchus measured the ‘tropical year’, the time between equinoxes.

Hipparchus puzzled that even though the Sun apparently traveled a circular path, the seasons – the time between the solstices and equinoxes – were not of equal length. Intrigued, he worked out a method of calculating the Sun’s path that would show its exact location on any date.

To facilitate his celestial observations he developed an early version of trigonometry.
With no notion of sine, he developed a table of chords which calculated the relationship between the length of a line joining two points on a circle and the corresponding angle at the centre.

By comparing his observations with those noted by Timocharis of Alexandria a century and a half previously, Hipparchus noted that the points at which the equinox occurred seemed to move slowly but consistently from east to west against the backdrop of fixed stars.

We now know that this phenomenon is not caused by a shift in the stars.
Because of gravitational effects, over time the axis through the geographic North and South poles of the Earth points towards different parts of space and of the night sky.
The Earth’s rotation experiences movement caused by a slow change in the direction of the planet’s tilt; the axis of the Earth ‘wobbles’, or traces out a cone, changing the Earth’s orientation as it orbits the Sun.
The shift in the orbital position of the equinoxes relative to the Sun and the change in the seasons is now known as ‘the precession of the equinoxes’, but Hipparchus was basically right.

Hipparchus‘ only large error was to assume, like all those of his time except ARISTARCHUS that the Earth is stationary and that the Sun, moon, planets and stars revolve around it. The fact that the stars are fixed and the Earth is moving makes such a tiny difference to the way the Sun, moon and stars appear to move that Hipparchus was still able to make highly accurate calculations.

These explanations may show how many people become confused by claims that the Earth remains stationary as was believed by the ancients – from our point-of-view on Earth that IS how things could appear.
a) demonstration of precession.

b) demonstration of the equinoxes, but not of the precession, which takes place slowly over a cycle of 26,000 years.


Because the Babylonians kept records dating back millennia, the Greeks were able to formulate their ideas of the truth.

Hipparchus gave a value for the annual precession of around 46 seconds of arc (compared to a modern figure of 50.26 seconds). He concluded that the whole star pattern was moving slowly eastwards and that it would revolve once every 26,000 years.

Hipparchus also made observations and calculations to determine the orbit of the moon, the dates of eclipses and devised the scale of magnitude or brightness that, considerably amended, is still in use.

PTOLEMY cited Hipparchus as his most important predecessor.

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1926 – Austria

‘The complex mathematical equation describing the changing wave pattern of a particle such as an electron in an atom. The solution of the equation gives the probability of finding the particle at a particular place’

the Schrodinger equation

This equation provides a mathematical description of the wave-like properties of particles.

Schrödinger developed what became known as ‘wave mechanics, although like others, including EINSTEIN, he later became uncomfortable with the direction quantum theory took. His own proposal was built upon that of LOUIS DE BROGLIE – that particles could, in quantum theory, behave like waves. Schrödinger felt that de Broglie’s equations were too simplistic and did not offer a detailed enough analysis of the behaviour of matter, particularly at the sub-atomic level. He removed the idea of the particle completely and argued that everything is a form of wave.

PLANCK’s work had shown that light came in different colours because the photons had different amounts of energy. If you divided that energy by the frequency at which that colour of light was known to oscillate, you always arrived at the same value, the so-called Planck’s constant.

Between 1925 and 1926 Schrödinger calculated a ‘wave equation’ that mathematically underpinned his argument. When the theory was applied against known values for the hydrogen atom, for example in calculating the level of energy in an electron, it overcame some of the elements of earlier quantum theory developed by NIELS BOHR and addressed the weaknesses of de Broglie’s thesis.
Schrödinger stated that the quantum energies of electrons did not correspond to fixed orbits, as Bohr had stated, but to the vibration frequency of the ‘electron-wave’ around the nucleus. Just as a piano string has a fixed tone, so an electron wave has a fixed quantum of energy.

Having done away with particles, it was required that a physical explanation for the properties and nature of matter be found. The Austrian came up with the concept of ‘wave packets’ which would give the impression of the particle as seen in classical physics, but would actually be a wave.

The probabilistic interpretation of quantum theory based on the ideas of HEISENBERG and BORN proposed that matter did not exist in any particular place at all, being everywhere at the same time until one attempted to measure it. At that point, the equations offered the best ‘probability’ of finding the matter in a given location. Wave mechanics used much simpler mathematics than Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics, and was easier to visualise.
Schrödinger showed that in mathematical terms, both theories were the same and the rival theories together formed the basis for quantum mechanics.

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Schrödinger joined Einstein and others in condemning the probabilistic view of physics where nothing was explainable for certain and cause and effect did not exist.

Ironically, PAUL ADRIAN MAURICE DIRAC went on to prove that Schrödinger’s wave thesis and the probabilistic interpretation were, mathematically at least, the equivalent of each other. Schrödinger shared a Nobel Prize for Physics with Dirac in 1933.

picture of the Nobel medal - link to

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EDWARD LORENZ (1917-2008)

1963 – USA

‘The behaviour of a dynamic system depends on its small initial conditions’

Photograph of EDWARD LORENZ ©


While working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lorenz developed a simple computer model to forecast changes in weather at a number of places. In one of his equations he used a rounded number (for example 0.156 127 became 0.156); his model now predicted quite different conditions.
He suggested that even a small initial unpredictable condition such as a flapping butterfly could produce a larger global change in weather.

The butterfly effect is one aspect of chaos theory that describes disorderly systems. The behaviour of a chaotic system is difficult to predict because there are so many variable or unknown factors in the system.

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Chaos in a driven double well system


1864 Scotland

The Scottish physicist examined Faraday’s ideas concerning the link between electricity and magnetism interpreted in terms of fields of force and saw that they were alternative expressions of the same phenomena. Maxwell took the experimental discoveries of Faraday in the field of electromagnetism and provided his unified mathematical explanation, which outlined the relationship between magnetic and electric fields. He then proved this by producing intersecting magnetic and electric waves from a straightforward oscillating electric current.

‘Four equations that express mathematically the way electric or magnetic fields behave’

In 1831 – following the demonstration by HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED that passing an electric current through a wire produced a magnetic field around the wire, thereby causing a nearby compass needle to be deflected from north – MICHAEL FARADAY had shown that when a wire moves within the field of a magnet, it causes an electric current to flow along the wire.
This is known as electromagnetic induction.

In 1864 Maxwell published his ‘Dynamical Theory of the Electric Field’, which offered a unifying, mathematical explanation for electromagnetism.

In 1873 he published ‘Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism’.

The equations are complex, but in general terms they describe:

  • a general relationship between electric field and electric charge
  • a general relationship between magnetic field and magnetic poles
  • how a changing magnetic field produces electric current
  • how an electric current or a changing electric field produces a magnetic field

The equations predict the existence of electromagnetic waves, which travel at the speed of light and consist of electric and magnetic fields vibrating in harmony in directions at right angles to each other. The equations also show that light is related to electricity and magnetism.

Maxwell worked out that the speed of these waves would be similar to the speed of light and concluded, as Faraday had hinted, that normal visible light was a form of electromagnetic radiation. He argued that infrared and ultraviolet light were also forms of electromagnetic radiation, and predicted the existence of other types of wave – outside the ranges known at that time – which would be similarly explainable.

Verification came with the discovery of radio waves in 1888 by HEINRICH RUDOLPH HERTZ. Further confirmation of Maxwell’s theory followed with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

photo portrait of JAMES CLERK MAXWELL ©


Maxwell undertook important work in thermodynamics. Building on the idea proposed by JAMES JOULE, that heat is a consequence of the movement of molecules in a gas, Maxwell suggested that the speed of these particles would vary greatly due to their collisions with other molecules.

In 1855 as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Maxwell had shown that the rings of Saturn could not be either liquid or solid. Their stability meant that they were made up of many small particles interacting with one another.

In 1859 Maxwell applied this statistical reasoning to the general analysis of molecules in a gas. He produced a statistical model based on the probable distribution of molecules at any given moment, now known as the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases.
He asked what sort of motion you would expect the molecules to have as they moved around inside their container, colliding with one another and the walls. A reasonably sized vessel, under normal pressure and temperature, contains billions and billions of molecules. Maxwell said the speed of any single molecule is always changing because it is colliding all the time with other molecules. Thus the meaningful quantities are molecular average speed and the distribution about the average. Considering a vessel containing several different types of gas, Maxwell realized there is a sharp peak in the plot of the number of molecules versus their speeds. That is, most of the molecules have speeds within a small range of some particular value. The average value of the speed varies from one kind of molecule to another, but the average value of the kinetic energy, one half the molecular mass times the square of the speed, (1/2 mv2), is almost exactly the same for all molecules. Temperature is also the same for all gases in a vessel in thermal equilibrium. Assuming that temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of the molecules, then absolute zero is absolute rest for all molecules.

The Joule-Thomson effect, in which a gas under high pressure cools its surroundings by escaping through a nozzle into a lower pressure environment, is caused by the expanding gas doing work and losing energy, thereby lowering its temperature and drawing heat from its immediate neighbourhood. By contrast, during expansion into an adjacent vacuüm, no energy is lost and temperature is unchanged.

The explanation that heat in gas is the movement of molecules dispensed with the idea of the CALORIC fluid theory of heat.

The first law of thermodynamics states that the heat in a container is the sum of all the molecular kinetic energies.
Thermal energy is another way of describing motion energy, a summing of the very small mechanical kinetic energies of a very large number of molecules; energy neither appears nor disappears.
According to BOYLE’s, CHARLES’s and GAY-LUSSAC’s laws, molecules beating against the container walls cause pressure; the higher the temperature, the faster they move and the greater the pressure. This also explains Gay-Lussac’s experiment. Removing the divider separating half a container full of gas from the other, evacuated, half allows the molecules to spread over the whole container, but their average speed does not change. The temperature remains the same because temperature is the average molecular kinetic energy, not the concentration of caloric fluid.

In 1871 Maxwell became the first Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory. He died at age 48.

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GEORGE BOOLE (1815- 64)

1854 – England

‘Logical operations can be expressed in mathematical symbols rather than words and can be solved in a manner similar to ordinary algebra’

Boole’s reasoning founded a new branch of mathematics. Boolean logic allows two or more results to be combined into a single outcome. This lies at the centre of microelectronics.

picture of mathematician George Boole


Boolean algebra has three main logical operations: NOT, AND, OR.
In NOT, for example, output is always the reverse of input. Thus NOT changes 1 to 0 and 0 to 1.

Boole’s first book ‘Mathematical Analysis of Logic’ was published in 1847 and presented the idea that logic was better handled by mathematics than metaphysics. His masterpiece ‘An Investigation into the Laws of Thought’ which laid the foundations of Boolean algebra was published in 1854.

Unhindered by previously determined systems of logic, Boole argued there was a close analogy between algebraic symbols and symbols that represent logical interactions. He also showed that you could separate symbols of quality from those of operation.

His system of analysis allowed processes to be broken up into a series of individual small steps, each involving some proposition that is either true or false.
At its simplest, take two proposals at a time and link them with an operator. By adding many steps, Boolean algebra can form complex decision trees that produce logical outcomes from a series of previously unrelated inputs.

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