Did Archimedes really produce a death ray 2,200 years ago' According to Greek and Roman historians, he set Roman warships afire with a polished mirror that focused the sun’s rays from afar during the siege of Syracuse. Last year, the Discovery Channel programme MythBusters declared the story a myth after failing to reproduce the feat.
The programme intrigued David Wallace, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When he presented the death ray as an offbeat project for his class in product development, he said, “only a small number thought it was technically possible.”
On October 4, on the roof of MIT’s West Garage, the class set up 127 cheap, 1-square-foot mirrors 100 feet from a wooden mock-up of the side of a ship.
Clouds dogged the experiment, but with just 10 minutes of clear sky, the “ship” burst into flames. “Flash ignition!” Dr Wallace exulted on the Web site devoted to the experiment, web.mit.edu/2.009/www/lectures/10_ArchimedesResult.html. The results first appeared on the Web site boingboing.net. “We’re not trying to assess whether Archimedes really did it or not,” Wallace said. Instead, they have shown that “it’s at least possible.”
Peter Rees, the executive producer of the TV programme, applauded the work. “Here at MythBusters we are always happy to be involved in any kind of quasi historical/scientific debate,” he wrote in an e-mail message, “especially if we prompted it.”
Like Wallace, he said that the MIT experiment did not prove that Archimedes actually created a death ray, or that it would have worked on actual ships in real-world conditions.