June 28, 2011 at 8:41 am | Posted in I didn't know that!, Origin of phrases | Leave a comment

16th Century illustration of Archimedes' "Eureka moment"

Why is the word “Eureka” said when someone has found the solution to a problem, or something they’re missing?

The word – which stems from the ancient Greek for “I have found it!” – was first attributed to Archimedes. It is believed he said “Eureka” when the water level rose as he stepped into a bath – he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the part of his body in the bath and that he could now measure the volume of irregular objects precisely.

Legend has it he was so excited to share his sudden realisation that he leapt out of the bath and ran through Syracuse naked.

Archimedes was asked by the local king to detect whether a crown was pure gold, or if the goldsmith had added silver – by measuring the density of the crown compared to a bar of gold, Archimedes could have determine if the crown was pure gold.

However, it’s though that this is a myth, as the story was first mentioned by Roman writer Vitruvius nearly 200 years later

The eureka effect – also known as the “aha phenomenon” – is often related to scientific discovery. Einstein is often said to have had a eureka moment when developing the special theory of relativity, although he disputed this:

“Actually, I was led to it by steps arising from the individual laws derived from experience.”

In 1984, Sir Alec Jeffreys also had a eureka moment – after looking at the x-ray film of a DNA experiment, he saw both similarities and differences between the DNA of different members of his technician’s family. He had developed DNA fingerprinting – using variations in the genetic code to identify individuals – a method constantly used in forensic science.


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