UMass-Dartmouth professor Alan Hirshfeld pens a mathematical pot-boiler about the life and science of Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer Archimedes.
Back in my college days, I took an introductory class in 20th-century quantum physics and its modern-day philosophical implications, sometimes deridingly referred to as "Physics for Poets."
In order to make the materials marginally more approachable, the professor would draw liberally from the Klingons of "Star Trek" fame to make his points.
For UMass-Dartmouth Professor and Newton, Mass., resident Alan Hirshfeld, the best way to envision a complicated physics problem considered, pondered and solved by Archimedes, is to picture the Coneheads from "Saturday Night Live."
But this playful diversion to late night comedy television only serves to enhance and lighten Hirshfeld's new book, "Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes," in a way the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer would likely approve.
"Eureka Man" is divided into two distinct sections. The first relates the sketchy biographical details which are known of Archimedes life, and provides a rudimentary explanation of the scientific breakthroughs he discovered.
Hirshfeld dwells on Archimedes' diverse interests in mathematics, physics and the practical engineering of war engines. This section, which occasionally ventures into explanations of obtuse mathematical concepts and physics conundrums, can be tough slogging to the mathematically disinclined. The first section also casts aspersions on likely apocryphal tales, such as the legend of Archimedes leaping from his bathtub and running naked through the streets of ancient Syracuse, shouting "Eureka!" over his discovery of principles of displacement.
The second portion relates the manner by which much of Archimedes work survived over the course of two centuries. Ultimately, it relates the history of the "Archimedes Palimpsest." As Hirshfeld relates, a "palimpsest" is a book written on recycled material, in which the original text is obliterated to make way for the new. In this case a very rare 10th century treatise on Archimedes' work was scrubbed mostly clean in order to reuse the parchment for an ecumenical text, only to have the original survive in readable form into this century.
It is from this document, rediscovered in the 20th century, that much of Archimedes' work has been disseminated and appreciated.
In order for Hirshfeld to make you understand how absolutely astonishing it is for such an ancient work of this nature and of this importance to have survived the ravages of time and distance, he provides a brief history of ancient Syracuse, the rise of Byzantium, the growth of monastic libraries, the history of paper, the nature of ink formation, the consequences of war on manuscripts and the dark and shady world of art thievery, art forgery and the triumph of technology over stupidity.
Along the way, Hirshfeld manages to summarize the history of science, a brief history of time and a short treatise of the rise and fall of civilization. By the time you finally put down "Eureka Man," you are left wondering whether seat belts should be mandatory equipage for reading this 256-page book.
"Eureka Man" is Hirshfeld's third venture into the history of science. Like his two previous works, "Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos" and "The Electric Life of Michael Faraday," Hirshfeld provides just enough science to justify our faith in his expertise, and just enough human interest to keep us interested in what comes next.
As with his two prior books, Hirshfeld demonstrates a knack for bringing to life topics of science and history, which ordinarily escape our attention. In the process, the author proves that one need not read the best-seller thrillers to find an exciting pot-boiler of mathematical history.
Although you may not have ever thought you needed to read a book about Archimedes, this book might leave you wondering how you got through life thus far without reading one. In this lies Hirshfeld's rare talent. And if you have been looking for such a book, this one should have you leaping from your bathtub and heading for the door, proclaiming "Eureka -- I have found it."
"Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes"
By Alan Hirshfeld
Walker & Company
256 pages, $26
Contact MetroWest Daily News correspondent Rob Meltzer at Robmeltzer@aol.com.