Iron Man, Archimedes, and Iron Dome

Last night I watched the movie Iron Man with my son Eyal. I love that film – not only for the great action, but also for the quick dialogue and Tony Stark’s wry, sharp banter. At one point, a young liberal reporter corners Stark and challenges him on the morality of being a weapons manufacturer.

Tony: It’s an imperfect world, but it’s the only one we’ve got. I guarantee you, the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I’ll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals. My old man had a philosophy, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.”

Reporter: That’s a great line coming from the guy selling the sticks.

Tony: Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intelli-crops? All those breakthroughs – military funding, honey.

Reporter: You ever lose an hour of sleep your whole life?

Though not exactly of the same genre, Robert O’Connell’s Ghosts of Cannae on the history of Hannibal and the second Punic War, which I just finished reading, does describe a superhero of sorts. Archimedes of Syracuse, the great mathematician and scientist, was probably the most important person alive at that time. The city of Syracuse was a major stronghold on the island of Sicily, and was an ally of the Carthaginians. Their enemies, the Romans tried again and again to capture the city, but to no avail – primarily because of the ingenious defenses that Archimedes implemented. The Roman general, Marcus Claudius Marcellus put it bluntly – “Syracuse can not be defeated so long as Archimedes defends it.”

To most of us, Archimedes will always be the one who ran naked from his bathtub shouting “Eureka!” after discovering the important principle of buoyancy that now bears his name. But he had lots of other brilliant insights and quite a few significant inventions as well, and many of those had military applications – both defensive and offensive. His “heat ray,” it is said, was able to set enemy ships ablaze while they were still far from the city walls. And if a ship did succeed in getting close, it would inevitably be capsized by means of the notorious Claw of Archimedes. Eventually, after two years of blockade, the Romans did manage to capture Syracuse. Marcellus gave explicit orders that no harm come to the great sage, but that was not to be. When a roman soldier demanded that Archimedes appear before Marcellus, the great mathematician, who was engrossed in working on some complex problem, responded that the general would have to wait until he had finished. Infuriated, the soldier struck him down on the spot. Archimedes died whispering the words “Do not disturb my circles…”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and threat of annihilation makes for one tough mother.

Military technology has always driven creative innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention, and threat of annihilation makes for one tough mother. Archimedes said, “give me a lever and I will move the world,” but if the need to flip over ten-ton boats is what moved Archimedes to invent the lever, then all the subsequent millions of instruments, machines, and gadgets that incorporate its principles owe a debt of gratitude to the Roman assault. What is true regarding the Claw in Syracuse still holds for the Iron Dome in Ashkelon. Israeli technology has in such great measure been driven by the army. The engineers who develop Arrow missiles and the super-stuxnet hackers end up founding, staffing and running so many of the start-ups of our nation. All that education, training, and experience, not to mention civilian and commercial derivatives, ideas, and innovation – military funding, honey.

That thought gives me pause.

The life – and death – of Archimedes is a metaphor for a different point of view, namely the wasted potential that war can cause. What other brilliant ideas were still inside his head when Archimedes was senselessly killed by that Roman soldier? What discoveries might have been made if he had not been preoccupied devising defenses for Syracuse? I would like to believe that even in times of peace the Tony Starks and “8200” intelligence geeks would still be inspired to channel their innovative spirit and brilliance to benefit society. And who knows what amazing breakthroughs could be achieved if they had the leisure to concentrate on problems other than military. Survival is, of course, paramount, and so developing technology to ensure our country’s safety is the highest priority. But we can still dream of a time when our best and brightest will focus on building better bricks and beams for baby hospitals.

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