EUCLID (c.330 – c.260 BCE)

Fourth century BCE – Alexandria, Egypt

Euclid

EUCLID

  1. A straight line can be drawn between any two points

  2. A straight line can be extended indefinitely in either direction

  3. A circle can be drawn with any given centre and radius

  4. All right angles are equal

  5. If two lines are drawn which intersect a third in such a way that the sum of the inner angles on one side is less than two right angles, then the two lines will eventually meet (or, parallel lines never meet)

These five postulates form the basis of Euclidean geometry. Many mathematicians do not consider the fifth postulate (or parallel postulate) as a true postulate, but rather as a theorem that can be derived from the first four postulates. This ‘parallel’ axiom means that if a point lies outside a straight line, then only one straight line can be drawn through the point that never meets the other line in that plane.

The ideas of earlier Greek mathematicians, such as EUDOXUS, THEAETETUS and PYTHAGORAS are all evident, though much of the systematic proof of theories, as well as other original contributions, was Euclid’s.

The first six of his thirteen volumes were concerned with plane geometry; for example laying out the basic principles of triangles, squares, rectangles and circles; as well as outlining other mathematical cornerstones, including Eudoxus’ theory of proportion. The next four books looked at number theory, including the proof that there is an infinite number of prime numbers. The final three works focused on solid geometry.

Virtually nothing is known about Euclid’s life. He studied in Athens and then worked in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I

Euclid’s approach to his writings was systematic, laying out a set of axioms (truths) at the beginning and constructing each proof of theorem that followed on the basis of proven truths that had gone before.

Elements begins with 23 definitions (such as point, line, circle and right angle), the five postulates and five ‘common notions’. From these foundations Euclid proved 465 theorems.

A postulate (or axiom) claims something is true or is the basis for an argument. A theorem is a proven position, which is a statement with logical constraints.

Euclid’s common notions are not about geometry; they are elegant assertions of logic:

  • Two things that are both equal to a third thing are also equal to each other

  • If equals are added to equals, the wholes are equal

  • If equals are subtracted from equals, the remainders are equal

  • Things that coincide with one and other are equal to one and other

  • The whole is greater than the part

One of the dilemmas that he presented was how to deal with a cone. It was known that the volume of a cone was one-third of the volume of a cylinder that had the same height and base diameter. He asked if you cut through a cone parallel to its base, would the circle formed on the top section be the same size as that on the bottom of the new, smaller cone?

If it were, then the cone would in fact be a cylinder and clearly that was not true. If they were not equal, then the surface of a cone must consist of a series of steps or indentations.

NON-EUCLIDEAN MATHEMATICS

Statue of Janus Bolyai

Janus Bolyai

The essential weakness in Euclidean mathematics lay in its treatment of two- and three- dimensional figures. This was examined in the nineteenth century by the Romanian mathematician Janus Bolyai. He attempted to prove Euclid’s parallel postulate, only to discover that it is in fact unprovable. The postulate means that only one line can be drawn parallel to another through a given point, but if space is curved and multidimensional, many other parallel lines can be drawn. Similarly the angles of a triangle drawn on the surface of a ball add up to more than 180 degrees.
CARL FRIEDRICH GAUSS was perhaps the first to ‘doubt the truth of geometry’ and began to develop a new geometry for curved and multidimensional space. The final and conclusive push came from BERNHARD RIEMANN, who developed Gauss’s ideas on the intrinsic curvature of surfaces.

Riemann argued that we should ignore Euclidean geometry and treat each surface by itself. This had a profound effect on mathematics, removing a priori reasoning and ensuring that any future investigation of the geometric nature of the universe would have to be at least in part, empirical. This provides a mechanism for examinations of multidimensional space using an adaptation of the calculus.

However, the discoveries of the last two hundred years that have shown time and space to be other than Euclidean under certain circumstances should not be seen to undermine Euclid’s achievements.

Moreover, Euclid’s method of establishing basic truths by logic, deductive reasoning, evidence and proof is so powerful that it is regarded as common sense.

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ERATOSTHENES (c.275 – 194 BCE)

Third Century BCE – Alexandria, Egypt

‘At noon on the day of the summer solstice, the Sun is directly overhead in Syene (now Aswan) and there is no shadow, but at the same time in Alexandria the Sun is at an angle and there is a measurable shadow’

Eratosthenes used this concept to calculate the circumference of the Earth.

In 230 BCE, the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes worked out the circumference of the Earth to be 25,000 miles (40,000 km) by studying shadows cast by the Sun in both Alexandria and Syene on the day of the summer solstice. Eratosthenes knew from his predecessors that at noon on the longest day of the year (the summer solstice), the Sun would be directly overhead at Syene when a vertical post would cast no shadow, whereas a post in Alexandria 800 kilometers to the north would have a measurable shadow

diagram explaining how Eratosthenes was able to calculate the size of the Earth by measuring shadows at different locations a known distance apart

Eratosthenes reasoned that the surface of the Earth was curved, resulting in the Sun’s rays being different in different locations. With the aid of simple geometrical instruments he found that in Alexandria at noon the Sun’s rays were falling at an angle of 7.2 degrees, which is one fiftieth of 360 degrees. Having determined the difference in the angles between the axes of the two posts, these axes, if extrapolated downwards would meet at the centre of a spherical Earth. Knowing the distance between the two places, he calculated that the circumference of the Earth was fifty times that distance.

Drawing of head of ERATOSTHENES © 

As 7 degrees is approximately one-fiftieth of a circle, multiplying the 800 km distance between the posts by 50 gives a circumference for the Earth of 40,000 km and dividing by pi gives a diameter of 12,800 km.

Eratosthenes’ value comes to 39,350 kilometres, compared to a true average length of 40,033 kilometres.

Eratosthenes was a scholar, an astronomer, mathematician, geographer, historian, literary critic and poet. He was nicknamed ‘Beta’ (the second letter of the Greek alphabet) because he was considered the second best at everything.

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