Answer Man

July 7, 2014

Answer Man: A ray of sunshine, even in war

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

Years ago I heard of an experiment by the Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" to determine whether a story about an ancient Greek scientist was true. The scientist was trying to help his king during a war, so he had the Greek soldiers polish their shields to shine like mirrors. Then, during battle, the soldiers turned their shields to concentrate the sun's rays onto a single target and blast it like a "Star Trek" phaser. Even President Obama got into the act -- one of his daughters had a science experiment. I never heard the outcome. Can you tell me what happened? -- Catherine Stoltz, of Belleville

Apparently the only people who got burned in this experiment were those who keep trying to spread this 2,200-year-old urban legend as fact. The details:

The scientist in question is the brainy Archimedes of Syracuse, who lived from about 287 to 212 B.C. Regarded as one of the leading thinkers of his time, he explained the principle of the lever, invented the screwpump that still bears his name and developed a number of mathematical theories and formulas.

But people may remember him best for a famous bath he took one day. He had been asked by King Hiero II of Syracuse to determine whether his new crown were made of pure gold -- or whether a jeweler had cheated him by using a cheaper gold plate.

So as he prepared for his soak, Archimedes suddenly realized how the principle of buoyancy could reveal the answer because pure gold was heavier and would displace more water. Legend has it that he jumped out of the tub and began running through the streets naked, shouting "Eureka! Eureka!"

Instead of locking him up, the authorities indulged him this small misdemeanor and let him go on with his work -- which leads us to the question at hand: Did Archimedes develop a death ray to use against the Romans?

That's what 2nd century A.D. author Lucian and, later, Anthemius of Tralles allege happened at the Siege of Syracuse. They wrote that Greek soldiers were given highly polished bronze or copper shields (or "burning glasses") to focus sunlight onto approaching ships and set them on fire.

But would it really work in the heat of battle? Not according to the MythBusters, who repeated their experiment not once, not twice, but three times. The first -- on Episode 16 (Sept. 29, 2004) -- came to this conclusion: "In order to have any effect, the mirror would have to be impractically large, and even then, the temperature of wood only raised a few degrees."

Still, the Discovery Channel folks challenged others to try their luck -- including a group of MIT students who used 127 1-foot square mirrors focused on a wooden ship 100 feet away. The ship did ignite, but only after it sat still for 10 minutes -- hardly the conditions of war. After all the challenges were in, the show ruled the myth "busted."

But special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman weren't through. On Jan. 25, 2006, they revisited the legend -- and came to the same conclusion: "The large array simply took too long to light the ship on fire. On top of that, the ship only ignited when it was stationary and positioned at less than half the distance described in the myth."

Then, when President Obama threw down the gauntlet on Dec. 8, 2010, the show went all out for its third and (so far) final try. Producers ordered 500 double-sided mirrors. One side was covered with bronze Mylar film to copy the old Greek shields. The other side was a modern mirror. The show then recruited 500 high school students to try to ignite the ship's sails.

The experiment went up in smoke -- but not the ship. Neither side of the reflector was able to set the sails alight, even when Hyneman was close enough to hit students with tennis balls thrown from the boat. But it did produce another theory to what really happened that fateful day in about 212 B.C.

"Though Adam and Jamie declared the myth busted, Jamie noted that the reflections from the mirrors were extremely distracting and had blinded him temporarily," according to the show. "This may have been Archimedes' true intent in recommending their use in warfare."

And, they reasoned, perhaps a few well-lobbed Molotov cocktails may have helped. For other MythBuster results, go to

Today's trivia

Who played Mia Farrow's sister in the Woody Allen movie "Zelig"?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: Hall-of-Famer Rick Barry is the only player to win seasonal scoring titles in the NCAA (1964-65, Miami, 37.4), the ABA (1968-69, Oakland, 34.0) and the NBA (1966-67, San Francisco, 35.6). His 30.46 points-per-game career average during four years in the ABA is thought to be the highest career average in any pro league. (Michael Jordan averaged 30.12 over 15 years in the NBA.)

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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