nature science history

8th Grader Tests Archimedes’ Death Ray And Helps Solve Its Mystery

Yes, the death ray, otherwise known as heat ray, works, and we now know how.

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Wall painting from 1600 showing the death ray, Greek mathematician Archimedes’ invention, used to burn Roman military ships during the Siege of Syracuse.

An eighth-grade student from Ontario, Canada, has contributed to resolving a longstanding historical dispute by demonstrating the potential functionality of a purported “death ray” attributed to the Ancient Greek polymath Archimedes.

Archimedes was a Greek mathematician and inventor who lived in the 3rd century BC. He is famous for his discoveries in geometry, physics, and engineering, and is widely regarded as the greatest mathematician of ancient history, and one of the greatest of all time. According to some historical accounts, he used his genius to defend his hometown of Syracuse in Sicily from a Roman siege by designing various war machines, including a heat ray that could burn wooden ships from a distance.

The heat ray consisted of a series of mirrors that reflected and focused the sun’s rays onto a single point, creating intense heat and fire. However, the existence and effectiveness of this device have been debated for centuries, as there is no direct evidence of it in Archimedes’ surviving works.

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Archimedes may have used mirrors acting collectively as a parabolic reflector to burn the Roman ships attacking Syracuse. Image: Finnrind (original); Pbroks13 (talk) (redraw)

The feasibility of the death ray has been a topic of debate since the Renaissance. While René Descartes dismissed it as false, Comte de Buffon and John Scott conducted successful experiments in 1747 and 1867 respectively.

In 1973, Greek scientist Ioannis Sakkas conducted an experiment on the Archimedes heat ray at the Skaramagas naval base near Athens. Greek sailors held up 70 copper-coated mirrors, each measuring approximately five by three feet (1.5 by 1 m), aimed at a plywood model of a Roman warship about 160 feet (50 m) away. When the mirrors were accurately focused, the ship ignited within seconds due to its tar paint coating. Sakkas concluded unequivocally that Archimedes could have employed bronze mirrors to destroy the Roman ships.

Some modern experiments have tried to test the feasibility of the heat ray, with mixed results.
In 2008, the TV show “Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections” showcased the Keck Observatory, whose reflector glass is inspired by Archimedes’ Mirror. The show demonstrated the use of a smaller curved mirror to successfully ignite a wooden model.

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Death of Archimedes by Thomas Degeorge (1815). Archimedes died after his city, Syracruse, was eventually taken by the Romans, after suffering considerable losses due to Archimedes’ inventiveness. According to the most popular account, while he was studying a mathematical diagram during the city’s capture, Archimedes refused to meet Roman commander Marcellus when summoned by a Roman soldier. Preferring to finish his work, Archimedes’ refusal angered the soldier, who then killed him with his sword. The famous last words attributed to him are “Do not disturb my circles!”, a reference to the diagram he was studying.

In 2004, the TV show MythBusters found the use of mirrors as a weapon implausible in their “Ancient Death Ray” episode. The following year, MIT students tested the concept using 127 one-foot (30 cm) mirror tiles on a wooden ship at a range of around 100 feet (30 m), resulting in flames but only in ideal weather conditions (cloudless sky) and after a considerable amount of time passed (about 10 minutes).

MythBusters later replicated the experiment with MIT in San Francisco, confirming minimal charring but dismissing the concept due to impractical time and weather requirements, emphasizing that more conventional armaments like flaming arrows or catapult bolts would have been significantly more efficient for igniting a ship at close range.

In 2010, MythBusters revisited the concept, involving 500 schoolchildren and a larger mock-up Roman sailing ship situated 400 feet (120 m) away. Despite extensive testing, the sail failed to reach the required temperature for combustion, leading to the conclusion that the mirrors were more likely to blind or distract rather than ignite ships.

12-year-old Brenden Sener was fascinated by the death ray’s mystery and decided that he would have a go at replicating the mechanism himself. He spent several weeks researching, designing, and building his own version of the heat ray, using materials such as cardboard, mirrors, and lamps. He also used an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of the focal point.

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Materials used for the experiment: 1) Infrared thermometer, 2) Clamps, 3) Heating lamps (50W, 100W), 4) Concave mirrors (four), 5) Target paper, 6) Stand for thermometer, 7) Timer of 3 minutes. Image credit: Brenden Sener

Sener discovered that when using reflectors to concentrate a 50-watt heat source onto a cardboard piece, the target’s temperature increased by 2°C (3.6°F) per extra mirror, up to a maximum of three mirrors. However, introducing a fourth mirror resulted in a substantial temperature surge of 8°C (14.4°F).

Upon replicating the experiment with a 100-watt lamp, he observed that “the change in temperature with each mirror was 4°C [7.2°F] up to 3 mirrors and an additional 10°C [18°F] with the 4th mirror.”

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The experimental setup. Image credit: Brenden Sener

“Based on my experimental findings, I agree with the MIT group and believe that with a strong enough heat source and larger, multiple mirrors all focused at a perfect angle, combustion could be possible,” the young study author writes.

His final assessment is that “the historical descriptions of the use of the Death Ray in ancient Syracuse is plausible, however no archeological evidence of the Archimedes Death Ray has been found besides what is recorded in the books of Ancient Philosophers.”

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The 12-year-old study author, Brenden Sener. Source

In recognition of his endeavors, Sener has been awarded the Matthews Hall Annual Science Fair Gold Medal, the Physical Sciences Thames Valley Science and Engineering Fair Gold Medal, and the London Public Library Award for Inspiring Children’s Interests in Science and Technology.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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Written by Tamás Varga
A sociologist and English major by degree, I've worked in the area of civil society & human rights and have been blogging in the fields of travel, nature & science for over 20 years.
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