(Especially the one who's prone to say, "Mom, when am I ever going to use this algebra, huh?")
Even without math, ancients engineered sophisticated machines
Classical texts reveal new insights into the history of catapults, balances
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., October 1, 2007—Move over, Archimedes. A researcher at Harvard University is finding that ancient Greek craftsmen were able to engineer sophisticated machines without necessarily understanding the mathematical theory behind their construction.
Recent analysis of technical treatises and literary sources dating back to the fifth century B.C. reveals that technology flourished among practitioners with limited theoretical knowledge.
“Craftsmen had their own kind of knowledge that didn’t have to be based on theory,” explains Mark Schiefsky, professor of the classics in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “They didn’t all go to Plato’s Academy to learn geometry, and yet they were able to construct precisely calibrated devices.”
The balance, used to measure weight throughout the ancient world, best illustrates Schiefsky’s findings on the distinction between theoretical and practitioner’s knowledge. Working with a group led by Jürgen Renn, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Schiefsky has found that the steelyard—a balance with unequal arms—was in use as early as the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., before Archimedes and other thinkers of the Hellenistic era gave a mathematical demonstration of its theoretical foundations.
“People assume that Archimedes was the first to use the steelyard because they suppose you can’t create one without knowing the law of the lever. In fact, you can—and people did. Craftsmen had their own set of rules for making the scale and calibrating the device,” says Schiefsky.
On second thought, maybe all the good math-less stuff has already been invented, so we'd better keep 'em in the books...