After a long search for my missing key, I finally found it. “Eureka!” I shouted.
My Middle Eastern colleague looked up, puzzled. “What did you just say?”
“Eureka,” I said, “you know, ‘I’ve found it’? Like that mathematician who shouted it when he made a discovery whilst in the bathtub.”
“A mathematician in the bathtub?” said my colleague, thinking hard. “No, I don’t know about that one..”
Strange, I thought to myself, that’s surely a pretty famous incident, no? Maybe they didn’t teach it in the schools here..
“Funnily enough though,” continued my colleague, almost to himself, “that reminds me. At school we learnt about a wise philosopher who made a discovery while he was at the hammam (the public baths).”
“Really?” I said, “whatever did he discover?”
“Oh, well, as he sat in the water and watched people entering and leaving the pool, he saw how the water level changed accordingly and then arrived at a theory of how any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid….”
It dawned on me that we were both talking about Archimedes!
Our cultural perspective affects how we learn and imagine, and hence how we understand and communicate events with others. In the story above, my teammate and I almost missed that we were talking about the same person.
“I say hammam, you say bathtub, what’s the big problem?” you might say. Well, embedded in the telling of the two stories are some pretty significant hidden assumptions.
Look Under the Surface
At school in the UK the Archimedes story often came illustrated with the Greek mathematician merrily splashing in a Victorian era tub with a 1940s rubber duck. A bathtub is made for one person, in the privacy of their own home. But my Middle Eastern friend’s retelling of events was actually far closer to the more likely reality. Greek (and later Roman) baths like the one in Syracuse where Archimedes lived, were very similar to the public bathhouses that my friend had grown up going to. These baths were communal and, of course, public.
So while I’d always pictured Archimedes as a genius loner locked away in his private bathroom, actually his displacement ‘Eureka!’ moment likely happened in public, surrounded and influenced by other people.
This makes the account of his delightedly running through the streets naked far more understandable (if not less shocking); he was dashing back home not darting out to the street.
While I mainly viewed Archimedes as a scientist and mathematician, my colleague considered him primarily as a philosopher. Of course Archimedes was all these things; different cultures place value on and show respect to different roles.
Teaching Archimedes’ Principle in the UK uses the bathtub because it takes students quickly to the heart of the discovery without requiring a lengthy background description of Ancient Greek bathing habits! In the Middle East, everyone already knows what a bathhouse is.
In other words, while I was busy describing a bathtub to patch up a (wrongly) perceived lack in my colleague’s knowledge of science, I actually should have been listening and letting his experience inform my understanding of a bigger picture. It was humbling to admit this. But also exciting, refreshing and mindset changing, in a great way.
Stay Humbly Curious
Apart from the good laugh we had together, there weren’t any major consequences from this episode, and whether Archimedes really made his discovery while bathing or not is still up for debate.
I didn’t need to import a bathtub mentality to educate my teammate about science. Where else might we need to let go of our tub to embrace the bigger, better picture?