A pparently the Japanese were not the only people in olden times utilizing exotic weapons to destroy invaders’ fleets. Almost 1,500 years before the kamikaze, or divinely opportune typhoon winds, helped Japan rout a force sent by Kubla Khan, the ancient Greeks torched an invading Roman flotilla at Syracuse by reflecting the sun’s rays onto the ships with a polished mirror — a device invented by the mathematician Archimedes.
Or so goes the story, vouched for by both Greek and Roman historians. Maybe it happened, and maybe it didn’t. Last year, a team from the U.S. Discovery Channel television show “MythBusters” failed to ignite an old fishing boat using a version of Archimedes’ “death ray.” The myth was pronounced duly busted.
Earlier this month, however, engineering students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proved the ray was at least feasible when they succeeded in setting fire to an oak mockup of a Roman ship that had conveniently sailed onto the rooftop of an MIT parking garage. The verdict by a student who tested the concentrated beam from 127 mirrors with his hand: “Dang, that’s hot!” In fact, it was — about 600 degrees Celsius hot.
So, the myth persists. Archimedes’ device still seems impractical, at best; it was vulnerable to weather and other physical factors, and required the target to cooperate. But if his death-ray mirror did work, as the producer of “MythBusters” pointed out, “it would have been the equivalent of a nuclear weapon in the ancient world.”
Probably the Reagan-era “Star Wars” program is a better analogy, since that, too, involved almost poetically imaginative technology that may or may not have worked in practice. Neither doubt nor luck shadows the efficacy of nuclear weapons.
As country after unstable country joins the nuclear club, making a deployment ever more likely, one reads about the lighthearted MIT experiment with a mix of nostalgia and gloom. Nostalgia for the days when aggressors could be fought off with things like mirrors (or typhoons, or dust storms), without causing widespread or long-term destruction. And gloom because one just knows those old Greeks would have given anything to trade up.
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