Recreating an Ancient Death Ray

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Did Archimedes really produce a death ray 2,200 years ago? According to Greek and Roman historians, he set Roman warships afire with a polished mirror that focused the sun’s rays from afar during the siege of Syracuse. Last year the Discovery Channel program "MythBusters" declared the story a myth after failing to reproduce the feat.

The program intrigued David Wallace, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When he presented the death ray as an offbeat project for his class in product development, he said, "only a small number thought it was technically possible."

On Oct. 4 on the roof of M.I.T.’s West Garage, the class set up 127 cheap one-squarefoot mirrors 100 feet from a wooden mockup of the side of a ship. Clouds dogged the experiment, but with just 10 minutes of clear sky, the "ship" burst into flames. "Flash ignition!"

Peter Rees, the executive producer of the TV program, applauded the work. "Here at 'MythBusters' we are always happy to be involved in any kind of quasi historical/scientific debate," he wrote in an e-mail message, "especially if we prompted it."

Like Dr. Wallace, he said that the M.I.T. experiment did not prove that Archimedes actually created a death ray, or that it would have worked on actual ships in real-world conditions.

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