AN INTERVIEW WITH ARCHIMEDES by Salvatore Buttaci
ARCHIMEDES IN HIS WOODEN TUB, WORKING ON HIS FAMOUS PRINCIPLE
No book about Sicilians would be complete without mention of Sicily's favorite son Archimedes. However, not content with simply mentioning that renowned mathematician, engineer, and physicist, as the author of A Family of Sicilians…I tracked him down by spending the better part of 1997 running search ads in both Greek and Sicilian newspapers and then hiring a missing-persons detective from Siracusa, Sicily, by the name of Eduardo Morro.
No one responded to the ads except an impostor named Archimopolis, proprietor of The Lazy Z_ta Diner in downtown Athens. And as for the Siclian missing-persons detective, he was found months later feeblemindedly wandering the streets of Messina, babbling that he himself was the great Archimedes!
As luck would have it, an anonymous e-mail I was sent contained Archimedes' URL! The genius had figured a way onto the Worldwide Web where he was teaching calculus to bedridden octagenarians who'd never made it to senior year of high school. From the Elysian Fields where he had been resting since his death in 212 B.C., Archimedes was again in his glory. Here is the Archimedes interview I conducted with him via the Net during the month of June 1998.
Q: A Greek in a book of Sicilians?
A: My father––Phidias by name––was Greek. I was born in Sicily. In Siracusa. Long before the Arabs, the Normans, and even before the Romans.
Q: Did you speak Greek or Sicilian?
A: Greek, of course, but I did understand enough of the vernacular to get by. A favorite expression of mine was "Ma chi fa-- babbìa?" which I'd often use at the marketplace when a Siggie––that's new slang for Sicilian––tried to overcharge me. It translates "What are you trying to do-- rip me off?" Those native Sicani and Siculi folks would steal your eyeballs!
Q: In 800 B.C. the Ancient Greeks founded Siracusa, Catania, Messina, Gela-- a string of colonies, with Siracusa eventually taking over all of Sicily. How did you fit into the scheme of things? Local poor boy makes good?
A: Good Zeus, no! My father was an astronmer. We had more drachmas than we could spend.
Q: Silver coins?
A: Gold coins too. I never went without. I wore expensive clothes, ate the best foods. I even had a lifetime membership at the most exclusive bath house in all of Siracusa: "Lu Spazziu" ["The Place"], which later we simply called the "spa."
Q: Speaking of the baths––
A: Here it comes. "Tell me about your famous experiment where the idea came to you in the bathtub." Right?
Q: Something like that. History tells us that a friend of yours, Hiero, the king of Siracusa, asked if you would solve a puzzle for him. The king had given a local goldsmith enough gold to make him a crown of specified size and weight. But when Hiero got the crown, he suspected all that glittered in it wasn't gold. He wanted you to prove the jeweler had pulled a fast one. Is that accurate so far?
A: Yeah, I figured it out for him and the thieving goldsmith was executed.
Q: You figured it out in your tub, then jumped up, ran naked down the streets of Siracusa, screaming "Eureka! Eureka! I found it! I found it!"
A: Pardon me for laughing. That's ridiculous! Who peddled that tale-- those idiot historians from Rome, Pliny? Plutarch? Here's what really happened. Yes, I was in my tub. I liked going there to think. I was always a thinker. I'd draw geometric figures. especially circles, in the dirt, in the dust, even on the surface of my bath water! Now here's one you modern Sicilians would appreciate: After a bath I would anoint myself with olive oil and trace figures in the oil on my bare skin! Today you'd call it Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but in my day the Greeks called it Genius. And I read everything I could get my eyes on, even the labels on burlap bags of wheat! And while I'm in a confessing mood, I also had a fondness for rubber duckies.
Q: Rubber duckies?
A: I couldn't take a bath without one. So it happened one day I noticed that when I pushed down on Darius the Rubber Duck, the amount of water that overflowed my tub was proportional to the amount of Darius the Duck that was submerged. I called that discovery "Dunking Darius," but I understand history preferred calling it "Archimedes Principle." What also occurred at that point was that Darius ruptured underwater and fizzled itself yellow-flat.
What I did then was jump out of that tub––yes, buck naked!––and cry at the top of my lungs, "Confound it! Confound it! I'm no streaker! I'm no streaker!" as I raced down the
Siracusan streets in search of "Toys 'R Theodus," the leading purveyor of bath toys. Of course, I was frightened of being arrested. Streaking was a capital offense; it was enough to have me done in, mathematician nothwithstanding. I could be subjected to my own "principle": submerged in boiling water and made to displace my own skinless weight!
Q: That's quite interesting, Archimedes. And here is another quote you allegedly made about another of your discoveries, or inventions: the compound pully or perhaps the lever. "Give me a place to rest my lever and I will move the earth."
A: What a crock! If this is how blatantly false history is recorded, maybe we ought to stop writing it down. What I actually said was, "Give me a place in Taormina to rest from being clever and the earth can go rotate without me."
Q: Your accomplishments boggle the mind, Sir.
A: I also invented calculus to the dismay of 1,800 years of high school math students. I helped the war effort by inventing weapons. Can you believe it? That same Greek Hiero begged me to help Siracusa hold back the advancing army of Romans, led by General Marsellus. That’s another story.
Q: As it turned out, that was the end of the story?
A: It was the end of me. Even geniuses, great thinkers, master mathematicians, eventually go the way of the Elysisan Fields. I was an old man of seventy-five who foolishly thought he'd one day die quietly in his tub. But it wasn't in the stars.
Q: What happened?
A: Despite my inventions: giant catapults hurling half-ton rocks, large cranes able to lift ships into the air and dash them against the mountainside, huge mirrors to blind advancing soldiers––despite it all, Marsellus, after eight long months, entered the gates while most citizens of Siracusa were attending a night festival to Artemis. Siracusa fell shortly after. Did I know? I was––you guessed it!––drawing circles in the dust of battle. Roman soldiers were plundering everywhere.
Suddenly one of those soldiers stepped on my work and grinded his boot into my designs. "Come with me, Greek!" he says. Well, I am so angry I could spit. "You're standing on my circles, Geek!" I reply, and with that, he draws his sword and slays me. Even Marsellus comes to my funeral pyre. Crowds of fellow Sicilians arrange themselves in very neat circles around my pyre to bid me farewell. Would you believe that after the ceremony my spirit could not resist kneeling down in my own ashes and drawing some more circles?
Q: How do you pass your retirement days? Are you still into geometry?
A: The Elysian Fields. Now why did it sound so interesting when they talked about it in the Greek temples? Boring is the only word that comes to mind that you will not have to edit out of your book. Nearly 2,000 years here. Even a genius could go mad! How did I spend my time? I sat in the piazza, discoursing with Isaac Newton, Descartes, thinkers like that. We'd reminisce in an outside cafe. We'd each take turns treating the rest to espressos and pastry. Stirring sugar into my espresso, I'd lose myself to memories while the spoon would draw black concentric circles along the perimeter of my cup.
Q: Well, Archimedes, it was a pleasure conversing with you on the Internet. I am proud to include you within my Family of Sicilians…
A: Eureka, huh? Eureka! After all these centuries, it doesn't sound at all like Greek to me.
“An Interview with Archimedes” first appeared in Sal Buttaci’s A Family of Sicilians: Stories and Poems (Saddle Brook, NJ: Buttaci Publishers, 1998), 159-167.
A Family of Sicilians…is available at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ButtaciPublishing2008
His two collections of flash fiction, Flashing My Shorts and 200 Shorts, were both published by All Things That Matter Press are available in book and Kindle editions at http://www.kindlegraph.com/authors/sambpoet
His new book If Roosters Don’t Crow, It Is Still Morning: Haiku and Other Poems:
Buttaci lives in West Virginia with Sharon, the love of his life.