Eureka? Wasn’t that Archimedes’ cry of triumph, two-and-a-half millennia ago, when he jumped out of his hot bath in Syracuse to proclaim to all around that he had hit on the principle of specific gravity? Quite. Since then, the term has been sadly devalued, having been imposed on any number of real or supposed novelties, ranging from steam pumps to Greek eating places. But, as any perspicacious reader of the daily papers may recall, the term Eureka has in recent years acquired yet another – if somewhat shadowy – connotation. Let me try to explain.
It was a London tabloid that first touched cautiously on the matter some ten years ago. Someone, somewhere, had somehow invented something, and had termed it Eureka. It appeared to be momentous, for it was already the subject of urgent consultations that were proceeding behind tightly closed doors in Washington, Moscow and Brussels. No-one appeared at all anxious to talk, let alone to explain things, even when the other tabloids dispatched their craftiest news hunters into the dark corners of politics, science and economics to find out what might be going on. Their harvest was bleak, and the story duly faded. It faded, yet only to be revived on various subsequent occasions when the media seemed to perceive the lingering scent of a genuine something that deserved to be tracked down – but what? From time to time, even the more sedate media, while confirming and refuting nothing, were tempted onto what was now being termed the Eureka Trail, pontificating sufficiently around the matter to assure readers that their subscriptions had not been paid in vain.
The modest trail that I myself have followed takes the story rather further back in time. The year was 1948, and in our last year at Grammar School we were treated to a course on the History of Civilisation, for which purpose the Governors had in their wisdom engaged the services of one Haldemar Grocock, M.Sc., a weighty and jolly figure with a straw hat on his head in the summer and a year-round twinkle in his eye. Over the months he conducted us from Archimedes to Hero of Alexandria, to Isaac Newton, to George Stephenson and to Huxley. But it was his very last lesson that I recall so vividly, for there he took a look ahead. We had already experienced the days of The Atomic Bomb and we had been conducted on excursions to view the room-sized and overheated computer (the “electronic brain”, they called it) that steered early Radar. And yet, maintained Haldemar, we still had far to go. One day, he promised, and certainly within our lifetimes, science would deliver the ultimate discovery that would change the world, and life upon it, forever. “I cannot tell you more,” he added, “but on that day the world will with Archimedes cry ‘Eureka’.” We wondered.
Some of us, meeting in coffee bars in later years, wondered still, as we speculated on the miracle that was yet to be. A device that would enable pedestrians to fly? A ballpoint that would flow forever? A module that would feed an entire battery of knowledge directly into the brain, rendering academic training obsolete? No, even that would not shake the world. But now sixty more years have passed, we have lived and presumably we have learnt. So can we today perhaps better conceive in which direction a fresh Eureka is destined to take us?
Space Travel is an ongoing wonder, but it leaves our daily lives unaltered, and will no doubt continue to do so unless it should pave the way to mass interplanetary migration when the Earth becomes too hot or too crowded for comfort. The Environment is calling loudly for correction, but no single invention is likely to put it to rights. The same might be said when we consider the ever-demanding field of ill-health. And even among those of us who are approaching their tenth decade, there are folk who consider that life has already provided them with sufficient goodness, and who would contemptuously set aside even an Eternal Life Pill if such were on offer.
And so, you ask me, do I myself know what to look forward to when the new Eureka emerges? Of course I do. Only a little while ago, the ghost of old Haldemar Grocock visited me in the twilight and whispered the secret into my ear. I had indeed intended to complete this present script by conveying to you this ultimate truth. Alas, only last night, in my mind’s eye, I perceived Haldemar’s ghost once more, and this time he was shaking his head vigorously at me. You will therefore have to wait a little longer. But I should add that, even as Haldemar shook his head, there was still a twinkle in his eye.
Photo: Archimedes’ Eureka Moment. Statue by Thomas W. Dagnall at Manchester University UMIST, Altrincham Street, Manchester, GB.