It wasn’t exactly the ancient siege of Syracuse, but rather a curious quest for scientific validation.
According to sparse historical writings, the Greek mathematician Archimedes torched a fleet of invading Roman ships by reflecting the sun’s powerful rays with a mirrored device made of glass or bronze.
More than 2,000 years later, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Arizona set out to recreate Archimedes’ fabled death ray Saturday in an experiment sponsored by the Discovery Channel program “MythBusters.”
Their attempts to set fire to an 80-year-old fishing boat using their own versions of the device, however, failed to either prove or dispel the myth of the solar death ray.
The MIT team’s first attempt with their contraption made of 300 square feet of bronze and glass failed to ignite a fire from 150 feet away. It produced smoldering on the boat’s wooden surface but no open flame. A second attempt from about 75 feet away lit only a small fire that burned itself out.
Mike Bushroe of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory tried a mirrored system shaped like flower petals, but it failed to produce either smoke or flames.
Myth stays alive, if barely
Peter Rees, executive producer of “MythBusters,” said the experiment showed Archimedes’ death ray was most likely a myth.
“We’re not saying it can’t be done,” Rees said. “We’re just saying it’s extremely impractical as a weapon of war.”
The experiment showed it may be technically possible, but didn’t answer whether Archimedes used it to destroy enemy ships, MIT professor David Wallace said.
“Who can say whether Archimedes did it or not?” he said. “He’s one of the great mathematical minds in history. I wouldn’t want to underestimate his intelligence or ability.”
Historical text describes Archimedes defeating a Roman fleet using the ray.
In “Epitome ton Istorion,” John Zonaras wrote: “At last in an incredible manner he burned up the whole Roman fleet. For by tilting a kind of mirror toward the sun he concentrated the sun’s beam upon it; and owing to the thickness and smoothness of the mirror he ignited the air from this beam and kindled a great flame, the whole of which he directed upon the ships that lay at anchor in the path of the fire, until he consumed them all.”
“MythBusters” also tried to recreate the ray last year, and after failing, declared the story a myth.
“If this weapon had worked, it would have been the equivalent of a nuclear weapon in the ancient world,” Rees said.