Was Archimedes' Mirror Real?

Legend has it that the mathematician Archimedes invented a giant mirror that used the sun to set Roman warships afire during battle in 212 B.C. But many have wondered whether the story is a myth. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David Wallace decided to test it out with a team of students.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the more enduring tales of military might destroyed by a secret weapon involves the mathematician Archimedes. The year was 212 BC. Rome had laid siege to Syracuse. All seemed lost until the Sicilian mathematical genius wheeled out a big round mirror. Using it and smaller mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays on the wooden ships, Archimedes managed to kindle a flame and incinerate the entire Roman fleet. Artists and ancient historians celebrated the event, but people have long wondered whether Archimedes' mirror was just a myth.

The Discovery Channel show "MythBusters" recently tried to re-create the effect and failed. But the idea intrigued David Wallace, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Earlier this month, he and his students conducted their own experiment.

Professor DAVID WALLACE (MIT): What we did is we had a roughly 10-foot-long facsimile of a Roman ship, and then we set out mirrors in two rows, one row on the ground, one row on tables. And then we used sticks to carefully aim the mirrors at a spot on the ship.

MONTAGNE: Alas, the sun gods did not cooperate. Clouds prevented the mock ship from catching fire. The professor and his team had to try again on a brighter day.

Prof. WALLACE: For the first half-hour, we were under a thin cloud, and so we were getting a lot of smoke, but finally, when we got a clear patch of sky, it was certainly under 10 minutes to get the open flame.

MONTAGNE: So did old Archimedes really set the Roman Fleet ablaze with a kind of death ray? Professor Wallace says it is technically feasible, but he allows that his modern equipment wasn't exactly equivalent. Wallace used glass mirrors, not the bronze reflectors the ancients would have used. Wallace's boat was also made of oak. He says the Roman ships were likely cedar. And his target wasn't floating in the ocean but parked on the roof of a garage. So with the help of the "MythBusters" crew, they will re-create the ancient weapon one more time.

Prof. WALLACE: We're actually going out to San Francisco this Friday morning with--and I'm taking six students and us with the "MythBusters." We're going to try it again using bronze mirrors and using a 30-foot fishing boat that's been stripped and put the right materials on it.

MONTAGNE: But, you know, it just occurred to me, I mean, what happens if you set this boat on fire? It's obviously a real boat.

Prof. WALLACE: I think that they have the fire department on hand, just in case. Have to be optimistic, right?

MONTAGNE: David Wallace is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. By the way, the Romans did come back and conquered Syracuse.

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