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Did Archimedes light Roman ships on fire using sunlight? A 13-year-old found out


The year is 213 B.C. Romans are trying to take control of an ancient city in Sicily.


HARRISON FORD: (As Indiana Jones) This is the siege of Syracuse. 214 B.C. - you got the wrong war.

RASCOE: The famous battle was recreated in the most recent "Indiana Jones" movie.


FORD: (As Indiana Jones) My God, we're witnessing history.

RASCOE: Eagle-eyed viewers with deep knowledge of the story noticed something in the movie - mirrored heat rays defending the city. For centuries, scientists have been debating whether ancient inventor Archimedes really did light those Roman ships on fire. They tried it on "MythBusters."


ADAM SAVAGE: You could only use it at a certain time of day when it's most effective. It's difficult to aim. What - are you going to ask your enemy to please show up around noon?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Or what if it's raining?

SAVAGE: Well, if I was a Roman, I'd want to show up on a rainy day.

RASCOE: And at MIT, they were more successful...


DAVID WALLACE: Finally, when we got a clear patch of sky, it was certainly under 10 minutes to get the open flame.

RASCOE: ...And recently in Ontario, Canada.

BRENDEN SENER: My name is Brenden Sener, and I'm 13 years old.

RASCOE: Sener won big after testing Archimedes' death ray for a school science fair project.

B SENER: So, I based my experiment off the most accurate historical recount (ph) that I could find. And I also looked at what MIT had done, and I wanted to do something similar, as their results seem to be the most groundbreaking.

RASCOE: Instead of lighting a real ship on fire, he scaled things down. If you were looking at it...

B SENER: You would see a target zone on a sheet of paper that's labeled as an X, and then you would have your heating lamp on one side of the paper, and then you - on your other side, you would have your concave mirrors, which you'd have angled at a - so that when the heating lamps turned on, the heat would be focused onto that target zone.

RASCOE: He tested the temperature of that X as he added mirrors and used a more powerful heat lamp.

B SENER: I found that as I did increase the amount of mirrors, the temperature of the target zone also did increase. And I believe if you continued to add more - a more powerful heat source and a larger mirror - concave mirrors, you would be able to cause combustion in a matter of minutes.

RASCOE: Cause combustion, meaning light the X on fire, just like Archimedes is said to have done to those Roman ships.

B SENER: It tells you that these theories are actually true.

RASCOE: ...That the Archimedes death ray could be more than just a myth. He thinks that the "MythBusters" crew might have had more success if they'd used concave mirrors like Brenden did, instead of flat ones.

B SENER: Due to a concave mirror being angled in, what it does - it allows you to much more easily take light, and then, depending on the angle, focus it directly onto one point.

RASCOE: Brenden didn't leave it at winning science fairs, either. He recently published his results in the Canadian Science Fair Journal. His mom, Melanie Sener, was not surprised.

MELANIE SENER: He's always had an incredible natural aptitude towards sciences and maths, and he's always been an incredibly inquisitive, interested child that always wanted to learn.

RASCOE: Brenden Sener is likely one of the youngest to test out the storied Archimedes death ray, and I'm sure he's done the ancient scientists and fictional archaeologists proud.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "RAIDERS MARCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.