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Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics

Chapter 2: Scientific Aspirations

In our first chapter, we saw how human beings have long struggled with our opposing desires and dispositions: to behold and appreciate the given world, and to shape it into what we would like it to be. In this chapter we turn our attention toward science, a mode of inquiry and body of learning that has served both aspirations with awesome effectiveness. From what does science come? What are its animating impulses? What are its goals?

The readings that follow explore the wellsprings of scientific activity by drawing on histories and memoirs of five great scientists. All of these men have irrevocably affected our lives with the fruits of their labor, rigor, and genius. From these words written by or about them, we can see that all were spurred to greatness by different ambitions and visions.

The first scientist recalled below—by Plutarch, in an excerpt from his “Life of Marcellus”—is the ancient geometrician Archimedes. Archimedes, who disdained applying his discoveries toward practical ends, exemplifies the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This view is radically altered by René Descartes, who in his Discourse on Method sought a new way of knowing that could make us “like masters and possessors of nature.”

Three contemporary scientists follow Archimedes and Descartes, both in our chapter and, to varying extents, in philosophical outlook. Entomologist E. O.Wilson, in an excerpt from his autobiography, Naturalist, recounts three episodes in his boyhood that formed him as a “naturalist” who “celebrate[d] . . . animals that can be picked up between thumb and forefinger and brought close for inspection.” Two chapters from the autobiography of the late physicist Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, establish his love of play and especially of solving puzzles. His “puzzle drive” leads Feynman to physics; as a physicist, he is determined to remain playful. Finally, biologist James Watson celebrates the pursuit of scientific glory in an excerpt from The Double Helix, the story of his race, with Francis Crick, to discover the structure of DNA. Here, scientific activity is directed as much toward the Nobel Prize that would surely go to the winner as toward the mystery that would be solved or the uses to which the new knowledge might be put.


Sample Reading

Excerpt from

The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

by Plutarch, translated by John Dryden

This passage from Plutarch’s Lives contains a brief portrait of the life, work, and death of the legendary Greek mathematician, Archimedes, known both for his feats of engineering and for his theoretical studies.

The portrait appears in the “Life of Marcellus.” Marcellus, a Roman general, is described by Plutarch as “skillful in the art of war, of a strong body, valiant of hand, and by natural inclinations addicted to war.” Yet though a consummate soldier, Marcellus was in other respects “modest and obliging, and so far studious of Greek learning and discipline, as to honour and admire those that excelled in it.”

The attached passage begins just after Marcellus has assaulted the Sicilian city of Syracuse, the home of Archimedes. Marcellus attacks with a massive force of ships, arms, and missiles. Yet all his weapons are no match for Archimedes and the instruments of war he has devised.

In what follows, Plutarch first explains why Archimedes has designed these machines, despite his sympathy with those, like Plato, who consider mechanics the “corruption and annihilation” of geometry. The passage proceeds to a dazzling account of the terror his machines inflict on Marcellus’s men.

Plutarch next writes that, despite Archimedes’ worldly success, he still “placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life.” Then follow stories Plutarch has heard about Archimedes’ uncannily single-minded devotion to geometry.

What moves Archimedes? Why does he disdain the inventions and machines he is able to devise on the basis of his geometrical knowledge? Why does he prefer “purer speculations”?

How might Archimedes’ way of approaching mathematics be explained by what he sees in it? What might that vision be?

Why did Archimedes refuse to obey the soldier who ordered him to go to Marcellus? Do you admire his reason for refusing?

Why is Marcellus so afflicted by the death of Archimedes? What do the several stories about how he died tell us about the ruling passion of this man of science, and about the relations of the scientific quest to the rest of life?

Can one imagine a man like Archimedes managing the human demands of his own life? His work had the power to transform the lives of others. Is there anything to be feared from a man so capable of affecting others, yet so indifferent to ordinary human needs?


Marcellus attacks Syracuse by land and sea.

. . . The land forces were conducted by Appius: Marcellus, with sixty galleys, each with five rows of oars, furnished with all sorts of arms and missiles, and a huge bridge of planks laid upon eight ships chained together, upon which was carried the engine to cast stones and darts, assaulted the walls, relying on the abundance and magnificence of his preparations, and on his own previous glory; all which, however, were, it would seem, but trifles for Archimedes and his machines.

These machines he had designed and contrived, not as matters of any importance, but as mere amusements in geometry; in compliance with King Hiero’s desire and request, some little time before, that he should reduce to practice some part of his admirable speculation in science, and by accommodating the theoretic truth to sensation and ordinary use, bring it more within the appreciation of the people in general. Eudoxus and Archytas had been the first originators of this far-famed and highly-prized art of mechanics, which they employed as an elegant illustration of geometrical truths, and as means of sustaining experimentally, to the satisfaction of the senses, conclusions too intricate for proof by words and diagrams. As, for example, to solve the problem, so often required in constructing geometrical figures, given the two extremes, to find the two mean lines of a proportion, both these mathematicians had recourse to the aid of instruments, adapting to their purpose certain curves and sections of lines. But what with Plato’s indignation at it, and his invectives against it as the mere corruption and annihilation of the one good of geometry, which was thus shamefully turning its back upon the unembodied objects of pure intelligence to recur to sensation, and to ask help (not to be obtained without base supervisions and depravation) from matter; so it was that mechanics came to be separated from geometry, and, repudiated and neglected by philosophers, took its place as a military art. Archimedes, however, in writing to King Hiero, whose friend and near relation he was, had stated that given the force, any given weight might be moved, and even boasted, we are told, relying on the strength of demonstration, that if there were another earth, by going into it he could remove this. Hiero being struck with amazement at this, and entreating him to make good this problem by actual experiment, and show some great weight moved by a small engine, he fixed accordingly upon a ship of burden out of the king’s arsenal, which could not be drawn out of the dock without great labour and many men; and, loading her with many passengers and a full freight, sitting himself the while far off, with no great endeavour, but only holding the head of the pulley in his hand and drawing the cords by degrees, he drew the ship in a straight line, as smoothly and evenly as if she had been in the sea. The king, astonished at this, and convinced of the power of the art, prevailed upon Archimedes to make him engines accommodated to all the purposes, offensive and defensive, of a siege. These the king himself never made use of, because he spent almost all his life in a profound quiet and the highest affluence. But the apparatus was, in most opportune time, ready at hand for the Syracusans, and with it also the engineer himself.

When, therefore, the Romans assaulted the walls in two places at once, fear and consternation stupefied the Syracusans, believing that nothing was able to resist that violence and those forces. But when Archimedes began to ply his engines, he at once shot against the land forces all sorts of missile weapons, and immense masses of stone that came down with incredible noise and violence; against which no man could stand; for they knocked down those upon whom they fell in heaps, breaking all their ranks and files. In the meantime huge poles thrust out from the walls over the ships sunk some by the great weights which they let down from on high upon them; others they lifted up into the air by an iron hand or beak like a crane’s beak and, when they had drawn them up by the prow, and set them on end upon the poop, they plunged them to the bottom of the sea; or else the ships, drawn by engines within, and whirled about, were dashed against steep rocks that stood jutting out under the walls, with great destruction of the soldiers that were aboard them. A ship was frequently lifted up to a great height in the air (a dreadful thing to behold), and was rolled to and fro, and kept swinging, until the mariners were all thrown out, when at length it was dashed against the rocks, or let fall. At the engine that Marcellus brought upon the bridge of ships, which was called Sambuca, from some resemblance it had to an instrument of music, while it was as yet approaching the wall, there was discharged a piece of rock of ten talents weight, then a second and a third, which, striking upon it with immense force and a noise like thunder, broke all its foundation to pieces, shook out all its fastenings, and completely dislodged it from the bridge. So Marcellus, doubtful what counsel to pursue, drew off his ships to a safer distance, and sounded a retreat to his forces on land. They then took a resolution of coming up under the walls, if it were possible, in the night; thinking that as Archimedes used ropes stretched at length in playing his engines, the soldiers would now be under the shot, and the darts would, for want of sufficient distance to throw them, fly over their heads without effect. But he, it appeared, had long before framed for such occasions engines accommodated to any distance, and shorter weapons; and had made numerous small openings in the walls, through which, with engines of a shorter range, unexpected blows were inflicted on the assailants. Thus, when they who thought to deceive the defenders came close up to the walls, instantly a shower of darts and other missile weapons was again cast upon them. And when stones came tumbling down perpendicularly upon their heads, and, as it were, the whole wall shot out arrows at them, they retired. And now, again, as they were going off arrows and darts of a longer range inflicted a great slaughter among them, and their ships were driven one against another; while they themselves were not able to retaliate in any way. For Archimedes had provided and fixed most of his engines immediately under the wall; whence the Romans, seeing that indefinite mischief overwhelmed them from no visible means, began to think they were fighting with the gods.

Yet Marcellus escaped unhurt, and deriding his own artificers and engineers, “What,” said he, “must we give up fighting with this geometrical Briareus, who plays pitch-and-toss with our ships, and, with the multitude of darts which he showers at a single moment upon us, really outdoes the hundred-handed giants of mythology?” And, doubtless, the rest of the Syracusans were but the body of Archimedes’s designs, one soul moving and governing all; for, laying aside all other arms, with this alone they infested the Romans and protected themselves. In fine, when such terror had seized upon the Romans, that, if they did but see a little rope or a piece of wood from the wall, instantly crying out, that there it was again, Archimedes was about to let fly some engine at them, they turned their backs and fled, Marcellus desisted from conflicts and assaults, putting all his hope in a long siege. Yet Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific knowledge, that though these inventions had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life; studies, the superiority of which to all others is unquestioned, and in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, of the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration. It is not possible to find in all geometry more difficult and intricate questions, or more simple and lucid explanations. Some ascribe this to his natural genius; while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlaboured results. No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required. And thus it ceases to be incredible that (as is commonly told of him) the charm of his familiar and domestic Siren made him forget his food and neglect his person, to that degree that when he was occasionally carried by absolute violence to bathe or have his body anointed, he used to trace geometrical figures in the ashes of the fire, and diagrams in the oil on his body, being in a state of entire preoccupation, and, in the truest sense, divine possession with his love and delight in science. His discoveries were numerous and admirable; but he is said to have requested his friends and relations that, when he was dead, they would place over his tomb a sphere containing a cylinder, inscribing it with the ratio which the containing solid bears to the contained. . . .

Despite Archimedes’ defenses, Marcellus and his army eventually gain access to Syracuse. As they prepare to enter, Marcellus regrets the coming, inevitable destruction of the city he is taking.

. . . But nothing afflicted Marcellus so much as the death of Archimedes, who was then, as fate would have it, intent upon working out some problem by a diagram, and having fixed his mind alike and his eyes upon the subject of his speculation, he never noticed the incursion of the Romans, nor that the city was taken. In this transport of study and contemplation, a soldier, unexpectedly coming up to him, commanded him to follow to Marcellus; which he declining to do before he had worked out his problem to a demonstration, the soldier, enraged, drew his sword and ran him through. Others write that a Roman soldier, running upon him with a drawn sword, offered to kill him; and that Archimedes, looking back, earnestly besought him to hold his hand a little while, that he might not leave what he was then at work upon inconclusive and imperfect; but the soldier, nothing moved by his entreaty, instantly killed him. Others again relate that, as Archimedes was carrying to Marcellus mathematical instruments, dials, spheres, and angles, by which the magnitude of the sun might be measured to the sight, some soldiers seeing him, and thinking that he carried gold in a vessel, slew him. Certain it is that his death was very afflicting to Marcellus; and that Marcellus ever after regarded him that killed him as a murderer; and that he sought for his kindred and honoured them with signal favours. ~



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