“…and unless the King comes here himself, I’m not to be disturbed.”
“Yes, of course.” The servant bowed out, leaving him alone with the bath. He stepped in, gingerly at first, the water almost too hot to stand. Slowly, he lowered himself down to a sitting position, feeling the heat soak into his tired legs. All day, on his feet, running back and forth, making tests and fending off royal messengers. The gods curse obsessive kings and greedy goldsmiths.
He sighed, as the hot water began to ease individual aches that had long since run together as one big knot of pain. More than the bath, though, the peace was a relief. The quiet, unbroken by the bellows and hammers of the royal smithy, the bustle of servants in the workshop, the chatter of courtiers come to check on his progress. Only the dripping of water where it had spilled over the edge of the bath.
He eased lower, and a new wave slopped over the side, setting off a new round of dripping.
“Wait a minute…” He sat back up, and the water receded, leaving a clear gap below the edge of the bath. Slid down again, farther than before and more water spilled over the edge. Back up, and the water dropped. Back down, more spillage.
Suddenly, images spun through his mind– balance scales and metal ingots and tanks of water, and that damn crown. And then he was out of the bath, pounding down the hall, racing back to his workshop, past the confused servants, his bath (and clothes) forgotten completely…
So, you might’ve heard that I have a new book on the way– in fact, I spotted (and signed) copies at a local independent store over the weekend. The book is full of stories about great scientific discoveries, and the (hopefully) surprising connections between those stories and everyday activities. The official release date is a week from tomorrow, and I’ve been trying to come up with a good promotional hook, and somehow last night, the collision between seeing my book in a store and the big wooden Advent calendar my parents brought up for the kids produced the phrase “Advent Calendar of Science Stories.”
So, here’s the (vague) plan: like the Advent Calendar of Physics a few years ago, I’ll count down the days to Isaac Newton’s birthday with a post a day providing a story about science. These will mostly be stuff that isn’t in the book, for one reason or another– anecdotes that I stumbled across in researching other stories but couldn’t fit in, or didn’t go into at length. Because there was a whole lot of research for this one, trying out bits and pieces of things here and there, and a bunch of good stuff ended up on the cutting-room floor, as it were.
I can’t swear I’ll be able to carry this all the way through to the 24th– I have a zillion other things I need to do this month, including a trip to Florida with the kids that might take me offline for a bit– but we’ll give it a shot. I also can’t swear I’ll hold to the fictionalized format above, but that was part of the original late-night inspiration, so we’ll give it a go for at least some of them. It’s an interesting writing challenge, anyway.
The starting point here is, of course, the famous story that provides my new book with its title, namely Archimedes in the bath, realizing he could use the displacement of water to determine whether a goldsmith had really tried to cheat Hiero of Syracuse by substituting baser metal for some of the gold provided for a votive crown. This is probably apocryphal, as it doesn’t appear until many years after the relevant events, but it’s a vivid story, and while I do try to be careful about accuracy in the anecdotes of the book, it’s too good not to use.
This story may seem like an odd choice for a book whose main point is that science is not esoteric and arcane, but a surprisingly everyday process for making and refining models of the world. Archimedes’s famous exclamation has become a byword for sudden and unexpected inspiration that appears to come from nowhere, which might seem the opposite of the procedural picture of science I’m pushing in the book.
But from another angle, you can see it as a further demonstration of the inseparability of science and everyday life. The key message of the story isn’t that Archimedes succeeded thanks to some inexplicable mystical experience, but that he didn’t stop being a scientist when he took a bath. He continued to look at the world around him and noticed small details. He thought about why the water slopped over the edge of his bath, and tested his ideas. And then he told the world all about it, apocryphally by running naked through the streets yelling “I found it!”, and more practically by publishing a treatise on the science of floating objects.
So, the take-home message from his story (and my book) is this: never stop thinking like a scientist, looking at the world, thinking about how it works, testing your ideas, and telling others the results. You’re doing it anyway, often without realizing it, but making conscious use of your inner scientist can provide huge benefits. Pay attention to the world around you, even when you’re in the bath, because thinking about the little details can be the key to everything.