Sunday, December 9, 2007

Was Archimedes Autistic?

Note: I am taking a break today. My Husband (Michael Lorenzen) is writing this post. He is a librarian and works at a university. He often has strange ideas (often inspired by history and historical figures) and this may be one of them. :]

Was Archimedes Autistic?


Reading the news about how autism is growing (i.e. being diagnosed better), one may well imagine that autism is a new 20th and 21st century phenomena. However, the evidence shows that people throughout human history have shown strong evidence of autistic behavior. Autism is not new. However, people are becoming more aware of the condition. This has lead to an age where autistic children (and adults) can be better educated and treated to be productive members of society.


Archimedes was born in Syracuse, Greece around 287 B.C. He was renowned as a philosopher, engineer, mathematician, astronomer, and physicist. Carl Friedrich Gauss wrote that Archimedes was was one of the three epoch-making mathematicians. He noted the others as being Sir Isaac Newton and Ferdinand Eisenstein. (Yeah, that is a different Einstein than Albert!) He is even credited with creating a death ray which played havoc with a Roman fleet during the Second Punic War.


Archimedes was also considered odd. Although little is known of his personal life, he was reportedly very awkward socially. He was very focused on his scholastic endeavors and appeared to have trouble understanding many social situations. His death seems very autistic. Wikipedia notes, "Archimedes was contemplating a mathematical diagram when the city was captured. A Roman soldier commanded him to come and meet General Marcellus but he declined, saying that he had to finish working on the problem. The soldier was enraged by this, and killed Archimedes with his sword." The Roman siege had lasted two years. Despite this, Archimedes was enthralled with a math problem! Sounds like autistic behavior to me. It is interesting to note that the Roman General Marcellus had ordered that Archimedes be spared and brought to him.


Was Archimedes autistic? There is no way to tell for sure. We can only look at the primary sources and speculate. Miland Brown at the World History Blog wrote in his post Is There a Link Between Autism and Some Historical Figures, "However, I do find it hard to give anyone an autism diagnosis long after he is dead. Sure, they may have exhibited autism symptoms but so do people who do not have autism. Social awkwardness is fairly common. Contemporary critics of a person were more likely to ignore positive behaviors and focus on negative ones, which may make a person appear to be autistic retrospectively even if they were not. With even the recognition of autism being fairly recent, I think it makes the task even harder."


I also realize that some people believe that autism is environmental and caused by things such as televison or vaccines. Evidence of historical figures like Archimedes being autistic will be rejected as it does not support what they believe. As one commenter wrote, "Just where is your data that vaccines do not cause autism? Show us ONE study that was not biased by the CDC and drug pushers." In this case, evidence is irrelevant to the writer. Some, like him, believe that the scientific community is wrong when the scientific conclusions do not support their views. In their opinion, contrary views in peer-reviewed journals published by doctors or scientists are in error and part of the conspiracy if they say otherwise. Further, claiming that Archimedes was autistic may upset some people who believe autism is caused by environmental factors that did not exist during the said mathmatician's time.


However, if autism can be connected to great men like Archimedes, perhaps that suggests that our genetic code is favoring autism. Autistic people from the past show exactly why autism is a benefit to the human race. Autism may be a hindrance personally to those who have to cope with the condition, but their insights help everyone else.


The historical record indicates that Archimedes may have been autistic. His behavior is hard to explain otherwise. Who obliviously works on a math problem in the face of death? There is no way to know for sure. But it is fun to speculate.

1 comment:

Casdok said...

Yes, i havent heard that one before. Interesting!