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Archive for the ‘Mathematicians's biography’ Category

Born: 287 BC in Syracuse, Sicily (now Italy)
Died: 212 BC in Syracuse, Sicily (now Italy)

Archimedes‘ father was Phidias, an astronomer. We know nothing else about Phidias other than this one fact and we only know this since Archimedes gives us this information in one of his works, The Sandreckoner. A friend of Archimedes called Heracleides wrote a biography of him but sadly this work is lost. How our knowledge of Archimedes would be transformed if this lost work were ever found, or even extracts found in the writing of others.

Archimedes was a native of Syracuse, Sicily. It is reported by some authors that he visited Egypt and there invented a device now known as Archimedes’ screw. This is a pump, still used in many parts of the world. It is highly likely that, when he was a young man, Archimedes studied with the successors of Euclid in Alexandria. Certainly he was completely familiar with the mathematics developed there, but what makes this conjecture much more certain, he knew personally the mathematicians working there and he sent his results to Alexandria with personal messages. He regarded Conon of Samos, one of the mathematicians at Alexandria, both very highly for his abilities as a mathematician and he also regarded him as a close friend.

In the preface to On spirals Archimedes relates an amusing story regarding his friends in Alexandria. He tells us that he was in the habit of sending them statements of his latest theorems, but without giving proofs. Apparently some of the mathematicians there had claimed the results as their own so Archimedes says that on the last occasion when he sent them theorems he included two which were false [3]:-

… so that those who claim to discover everything, but produce no proofs of the same, may be confuted as having pretended to discover the impossible.

Other than in the prefaces to his works, information about Archimedes comes to us from a number of sources such as in stories from Plutarch, Livy, and others. Plutarch tells us that Archimedes was related to King Hieron II of Syracuse (see for example [3]):-

Archimedes … in writing to King Hiero, whose friend and near relation he was….

Again evidence of at least his friendship with the family of King Hieron II comes from the fact that The Sandreckoner was dedicated to Gelon, the son of King Hieron.

There are, in fact, quite a number of references to Archimedes in the writings of the time for he had gained a reputation in his own time which few other mathematicians of this period achieved. The reason for this was not a widespread interest in new mathematical ideas but rather that Archimedes had invented many machines which were used as engines of war. These were particularly effective in the defence of Syracuse when it was attacked by the Romans under the command of Marcellus.

Plutarch writes in his work on Marcellus, the Roman commander, about how Archimedes’ engines of war were used against the Romans in the siege of 212 BC:-

… when Archimedes began to ply his engines, he at once shot against the land forces all sorts of missile weapons, and immense masses of stone that came down with incredible noise and violence; against which no man could stand; for they knocked down those upon whom they fell in heaps, breaking all their ranks and files. In the meantime huge poles thrust out from the walls over the ships and sunk some by great weights which they let down from on high upon them; others they lifted up into the air by an iron hand or beak like a crane’s beak and, when they had drawn them up by the prow, and set them on end upon the poop, they plunged them to the bottom of the sea; or else the ships, drawn by engines within, and whirled about, were dashed against steep rocks that stood jutting out under the walls, with great destruction of the soldiers that were aboard them. A ship was frequently lifted up to a great height in the air (a dreadful thing to behold), and was rolled to and fro, and kept swinging, until the mariners were all thrown out, when at length it was dashed against the rocks, or let fall.

Archimedes had been persuaded by his friend and relation King Hieron to build such machines:-

These machines [Archimedes] had designed and contrived, not as matters of any importance, but as mere amusements in geometry; in compliance with King Hiero’s desire and request, some little time before, that he should reduce to practice some part of his admirable speculation in science, and by accommodating the theoretic truth to sensation and ordinary use, bring it more within the appreciation of the people in general.

Perhaps it is sad that engines of war were appreciated by the people of this time in a way that theoretical mathematics was not, but one would have to remark that the world is not a very different place at the end of the second millenium AD. Other inventions of Archimedes such as the compound pulley also brought him great fame among his contemporaries. Again we quote Plutarch:-

[Archimedes] had stated [in a letter to King Hieron] that given the force, any given weight might be moved, and even boasted, we are told, relying on the strength of demonstration, that if there were another earth, by going into it he could remove this. Hiero being struck with amazement at this, and entreating him to make good this problem by actual experiment, and show some great weight moved by a small engine, he fixed accordingly upon a ship of burden out of the king’s arsenal, which could not be drawn out of the dock without great labour and many men; and, loading her with many passengers and a full freight, sitting himself the while far off, with no great endeavour, but only holding the head of the pulley in his hand and drawing the cords by degrees, he drew the ship in a straight line, as smoothly and evenly as if she had been in the sea.

Yet Archimedes, although he achieved fame by his mechanical inventions, believed that pure mathematics was the only worthy pursuit. Again Plutarch describes beautifully Archimedes attitude, yet we shall see later that Archimedes did in fact use some very practical methods to discover results from pure geometry:-

Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of scientific knowledge, that though these inventions had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life; studies, the superiority of which to all others is unquestioned, and in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, of the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration.

His fascination with geometry is beautifully described by Plutarch:-

Oftimes Archimedes’ servants got him against his will to the baths, to wash and anoint him, and yet being there, he would ever be drawing out of the geometrical figures, even in the very embers of the chimney. And while they were anointing of him with oils and sweet savours, with his fingers he drew lines upon his naked body, so far was he taken from himself, and brought into ecstasy or trance, with the delight he had in the study of geometry.

The achievements of Archimedes are quite outstanding. He is considered by most historians of mathematics as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He perfected a method of integration which allowed him to find areas, volumes and surface areas of many bodies. Chasles said that Archimedes’ work on integration (see [7]):-

… gave birth to the calculus of the infinite conceived and brought to perfection by Kepler, Cavalieri, Fermat, Leibniz and Newton.

Archimedes was able to apply the method of exhaustion, which is the early form of integration, to obtain a whole range of important results and we mention some of these in the descriptions of his works below. Archimedes also gave an accurate approximation to π and showed that he could approximate square roots accurately. He invented a system for expressing large numbers. In mechanics Archimedes discovered fundamental theorems concerning the centre of gravity of plane figures and solids. His most famous theorem gives the weight of a body immersed in a liquid, called Archimedes’ principle.

The works of Archimedes which have survived are as follows. On plane equilibriums (two books), Quadrature of the parabola, On the sphere and cylinder (two books), On spirals, On conoids and spheroids, On floating bodies (two books), Measurement of a circle, and The Sandreckoner. In the summer of 1906, J L Heiberg, professor of classical philology at the University of Copenhagen, discovered a 10th century manuscript which included Archimedes’ work The method. This provides a remarkable insight into how Archimedes discovered many of his results and we will discuss this below once we have given further details of what is in the surviving books.

The order in which Archimedes wrote his works is not known for certain. We have used the chronological order suggested by Heath in [7] in listing these works above, except for The Method which Heath has placed immediately before On the sphere and cylinder. The paper [47] looks at arguments for a different chronological order of Archimedes’ works.

The treatise On plane equilibriums sets out the fundamental principles of mechanics, using the methods of geometry. Archimedes discovered fundamental theorems concerning the centre of gravity of plane figures and these are given in this work. In particular he finds, in book 1, the centre of gravity of a parallelogram, a triangle, and a trapezium. Book two is devoted entirely to finding the centre of gravity of a segment of a parabola. In the Quadrature of the parabola Archimedes finds the area of a segment of a parabola cut off by any chord.

In the first book of On the sphere and cylinder Archimedes shows that the surface of a sphere is four times that of a great circle, he finds the area of any segment of a sphere, he shows that the volume of a sphere is two-thirds the volume of a circumscribed cylinder, and that the surface of a sphere is two-thirds the surface of a circumscribed cylinder including its bases. A good discussion of how Archimedes may have been led to some of these results using infinitesimals is given in [14]. In the second book of this work Archimedes’ most important result is to show how to cut a given sphere by a plane so that the ratio of the volumes of the two segments has a prescribed ratio.

In On spirals Archimedes defines a spiral, he gives fundamental properties connecting the length of the radius vector with the angles through which it has revolved. He gives results on tangents to the spiral as well as finding the area of portions of the spiral. In the work On conoids and spheroids Archimedes examines paraboloids of revolution, hyperboloids of revolution, and spheroids obtained by rotating an ellipse either about its major axis or about its minor axis. The main purpose of the work is to investigate the volume of segments of these three-dimensional figures. Some claim there is a lack of rigour in certain of the results of this work but the interesting discussion in [43] attributes this to a modern day reconstruction.

On floating bodies is a work in which Archimedes lays down the basic principles of hydrostatics. His most famous theorem which gives the weight of a body immersed in a liquid, called Archimedes’ principle, is contained in this work. He also studied the stability of various floating bodies of different shapes and different specific gravities. In Measurement of the Circle Archimedes shows that the exact value of π lies between the values 310/71 and 31/7. This he obtained by circumscribing and inscribing a circle with regular polygons having 96 sides.

The Sandreckoner is a remarkable work in which Archimedes proposes a number system capable of expressing numbers up to 8 × 1063in modern notation. He argues in this work that this number is large enough to count the number of grains of sand which could be fitted into the universe. There are also important historical remarks in this work, for Archimedes has to give the dimensions of the universe to be able to count the number of grains of sand which it could contain. He states that Aristarchus has proposed a system with the sun at the centre and the planets, including the Earth, revolving round it. In quoting results on the dimensions he states results due to Eudoxus, Phidias (his father), and to Aristarchus. There are other sources which mention Archimedes’ work on distances to the heavenly bodies. For example in [59] Osborne reconstructs and discusses:-

…a theory of the distances of the heavenly bodies ascribed to Archimedes, but the corrupt state of the numerals in the sole surviving manuscript [due to Hippolytus of Rome, about 220 AD] means that the material is difficult to handle.

In the Method, Archimedes described the way in which he discovered many of his geometrical results (see [7]):-

… certain things first became clear to me by a mechanical method, although they had to be proved by geometry afterwards because their investigation by the said method did not furnish an actual proof. But it is of course easier, when we have previously acquired, by the method, some knowledge of the questions, to supply the proof than it is to find it without any previous knowledge.

Perhaps the brilliance of Archimedes’ geometrical results is best summed up by Plutarch, who writes:-

It is not possible to find in all geometry more difficult and intricate questions, or more simple and lucid explanations. Some ascribe this to his natural genius; while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlaboured results. No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required.

Heath adds his opinion of the quality of Archimedes’ work [7]:-

The treatises are, without exception, monuments of mathematical exposition; the gradual revelation of the plan of attack, the masterly ordering of the propositions, the stern elimination of everything not immediately relevant to the purpose, the finish of the whole, are so impressive in their perfection as to create a feeling akin to awe in the mind of the reader.

There are references to other works of Archimedes which are now lost. Pappus refers to a work by Archimedes on semi-regular polyhedra, Archimedes himself refers to a work on the number system which he proposed in the Sandreckoner, Pappus mentions a treatise On balances and levers, and Theon mentions a treatise by Archimedes about mirrors. Evidence for further lost works are discussed in [67] but the evidence is not totally convincing.

Archimedes was killed in 212 BC during the capture of Syracuse by the Romans in the Second Punic War after all his efforts to keep the Romans at bay with his machines of war had failed. Plutarch recounts three versions of the story of his killing which had come down to him. The first version:-

Archimedes … was …, as fate would have it, intent upon working out some problem by a diagram, and having fixed his mind alike and his eyes upon the subject of his speculation, he never noticed the incursion of the Romans, nor that the city was taken. In this transport of study and contemplation, a soldier, unexpectedly coming up to him, commanded him to follow to Marcellus; which he declining to do before he had worked out his problem to a demonstration, the soldier, enraged, drew his sword and ran him through.

The second version:-

… a Roman soldier, running upon him with a drawn sword, offered to kill him; and that Archimedes, looking back, earnestly besought him to hold his hand a little while, that he might not leave what he was then at work upon inconclusive and imperfect; but the soldier, nothing moved by his entreaty, instantly killed him.

Finally, the third version that Plutarch had heard:-

… as Archimedes was carrying to Marcellus mathematical instruments, dials, spheres, and angles, by which the magnitude of the sun might be measured to the sight, some soldiers seeing him, and thinking that he carried gold in a vessel, slew him.

Archimedes considered his most significant accomplishments were those concerning a cylinder circumscribing a sphere, and he asked for a representation of this together with his result on the ratio of the two, to be inscribed on his tomb. Cicero was in Sicily in 75 BC and he writes how he searched for Archimedes tomb (see for example [1]):-

… and found it enclosed all around and covered with brambles and thickets; for I remembered certain doggerel lines inscribed, as I had heard, upon his tomb, which stated that a sphere along with a cylinder had been put on top of his grave. Accordingly, after taking a good look all around …, I noticed a small column arising a little above the bushes, on which there was a figure of a sphere and a cylinder… . Slaves were sent in with sickles … and when a passage to the place was opened we approached the pedestal in front of us; the epigram was traceable with about half of the lines legible, as the latter portion was worn away.

It is perhaps surprising that the mathematical works of Archimedes were relatively little known immediately after his death. As Clagett writes in [1]:-

Unlike the Elements of Euclid, the works of Archimedes were not widely known in antiquity. … It is true that … individual works of Archimedes were obviously studied at Alexandria, since Archimedes was often quoted by three eminent mathematicians of Alexandria: Heron, Pappus and Theon.

Only after Eutocius brought out editions of some of Archimedes works, with commentaries, in the sixth century AD were the remarkable treatises to become more widely known. Finally, it is worth remarking that the test used today to determine how close to the original text the various versions of his treatises of Archimedes are, is to determine whether they have retained Archimedes’ Dorian dialect.

Article by: J J O’Connor and E F Robertson

From http://www.gap-system.org


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Apollonius of Perga


Born: about 262 BC in Perga, Pamphylia, Greek Ionia (now Murtina, Antalya, Turkey)
Died: about 190 BC in Alexandria, Egypt

Apollonius of Perga was known as ‘The Great Geometer’. Little is known of his life but his works have had a very great influence on the development of mathematics, in particular his famous book Conics introduced terms which are familiar to us today such as parabola, ellipse and hyperbola.

Apollonius of Perga should not be confused with other Greek scholars called Apollonius, for it was a common name. In [1] details of others with the name of Apollonius are given: Apollonius of Rhodes, born about 295 BC, a Greek poet and grammarian, a pupil of Callimachus who was a teacher of Eratosthenes; Apollonius of Tralles, 2nd century BC, a Greek sculptor; Apollonius the Athenian, 1st century BC, a sculptor; Apollonius of Tyana, 1st century AD, a member of the society founded by Pythagoras; Apollonius Dyscolus, 2nd century AD, a Greek grammarian who was reputedly the founder of the systematic study of grammar; and Apollonius of Tyre who is a literary character.

The mathematician Apollonius was born in Perga, Pamphylia which today is known as Murtina, or Murtana and is now in Antalya, Turkey. Perga was a centre of culture at this time and it was the place of worship of Queen Artemis, a nature goddess. When he was a young man Apollonius went to Alexandria where he studied under the followers of Euclid and later he taught there. Apollonius visited Pergamum where a university and library similar to Alexandria had been built. Pergamum, today the town of Bergama in the province of Izmir in Turkey, was an ancient Greek city in Mysia. It was situated 25 km from the Aegean Sea on a hill on the northern side of the wide valley of the Caicus River (called the Bakir river today).

While Apollonius was at Pergamum he met Eudemus of Pergamum (not to be confused with Eudemus of Rhodes who wrote the History of Geometry) and also Attalus, who many think must be King Attalus I of Pergamum. In the preface to the second edition of Conics Apollonius addressed Eudemus (see [4] or [7]):-

If you are in good health and things are in other respects as you wish, it is well; with me too things are moderately well. During the time I spent with you at Pergamum I observed your eagerness to become aquatinted with my work in conics.

The only other pieces of information about Apollonius’s life is to be found in the prefaces of various books of Conics. We learn that he had a son, also called Apollonius, and in fact his son took the second edition of book two of Conics from Alexandria to Eudemus in Pergamum. We also learn from the preface to this book that Apollonius introduced the geometer Philonides to Eudemus while they were at Ephesus.

We are in a somewhat better state of knowledge concerning the books which Apollonius wrote. Conics was written in eight books but only the first four have survived in Greek. In Arabic, however, the first seven of the eight books of Conics survive.

First we should note that conic sections to Apollonius are by definition the curves formed when a plane intersects the surface of a cone. Apollonius explains in his preface how he came to write his famous work Conics (see [4] or [7]):-

… I undertook the investigation of this subject at the request of Naucrates the geometer, at the time when he came to Alexandria and stayed with me, and, when I had worked it out in eight books, I gave them to him at once, too hurriedly, because he was on the point of sailing; they had therefore not been thoroughly revised, indeed I had put down everything just as it occurred to me, postponing revision until the end.

Books 1 and 2 of the Conics began to circulate in the form of their first draft, in fact there is some evidence that certain translations which have come down to us have come from these first drafts. Apollonius writes (see [4] or [7]):-

… it happened that some persons also, among those who I have met, have got the first and second books before they were corrected….

Conics consisted of 8 books. Books one to four form an elementary introduction to the basic properties of conics. Most of the results in these books were known to Euclid, Aristaeus and others but some are, in Apollonius’s own words:-

… worked out more fully and generally than in the writings of others.

In book one the relations satisfied by the diameters and tangents of conics are studied while in book two Apollonius investigates how hyperbolas are related to their asymptotes, and he also studies how to draw tangents to given conics. There are, however, new results in these books in particular in book three. Apollonius writes of book three (see [4] or [7]):-

… the most and prettiest of these theorems are new, and it was their discovery which made me aware that Euclid did not work out the syntheses of the locus with respect to three and four lines, but only a chance portion of it, and that not successfully; for it was not possible for the said synthesis to be completed without the aid of the additional theorems discovered by me.

Books five to seven are highly original. In these Apollonius discusses normals to conics and shows how many can be drawn from a point. He gives propositions determining the centre of curvature which lead immediately to the Cartesian equation of the evolute. Heath writes that book five [7]:-

… is the most remarkable of the extant Books. It deals with normals to conics regarded as maximum and minimum straight lines drawn from particular points to the curve. Included in it are a series of propositions which, though worked out by the purest geometrical methods, actually lead immediately to the determination of the evolute of each of the three conics; that is to say, the Cartesian equations of the evolutes can be easily deduced from the results obtained by Apollonius. There can be no doubt that the Book is almost wholly original, and it is a veritable geometrical tour de force.

The beauty of Apollonius’s Conics can readily be seen by reading the propositions as given by Heath, see [4] or [7]. However, Heath explains in [7] how difficult the original text is to read:-

… the treatise is a great classic which deserves to be more known than it is. What militates against its being read in its original form is the great extent of the exposition (it contains 387 separate propositions), due partly to the Greek habit of proving particular cases of a general proposition separately from the proposition itself, but more to the cumbersomeness of the enunciations of complicated propositions in general terms (without the help of letters to denote particular points) and to the elaborateness of the Euclidean form, to which Apollonius adheres throughout.

Pappus gives some indications of the contents of six other works by Apollonius. These are Cutting of a ratio (in two books), Cutting an area (in two books), On determinate section (in two books), Tangencies (in two books), Plane loci (in two books), and On verging constructions (in two books). Cutting of a ratio survives in Arabic and we are told by the 10th century bibliographer Ibn al-Nadim that three other works were translated into Arabic but none of these survives.

To illustrate how far Apollonius had taken geometric constructions beyond that of Euclid‘s Elements we consider results which are known to have been contained in Tangencies. In the Elements Book III Euclid shows how to draw a circle through three given points. He also shows how to draw a tangent to three given lines. In Tangencies Apollonius shows how to construct the circle which is tangent to three given circles. More generally he shows how to construct the circle which is tangent to any three objects, where the objects are points or lines or circles.

In [14] Hogendijk reports that two works of Apollonius, not previously thought to have been translated into Arabic, were in fact known to Muslim geometers of the 10th century. These are the works Plane loci and On verging constructions. In [14] some results from these works which were not previously known to have been proved by Apollonius are described.

From other sources there are references to still further books by Apollonius, none of which have survived. Hypsicles refers to a work by Apollonius comparing a dodecahedron and an icosahedron inscribed in the same sphere, which like Conics appeared in two editions. Marinus, writing a commentary on Euclid‘s Data, refers to a general work by Apollonius in which the foundations of mathematics such as the meaning of axioms and definitions are discussed. Apollonius also wrote a work on the cylindrical helix and another on irrational numbers which is mentioned by Proclus. Eutocius refers to a book Quick delivery by Apollonius in which he obtained an approximation for π better than the

223/71 < π < 22/7

known to Archimedes. In On the Burning Mirror Apollonius showed that parallel rays of light are not brought to a focus by a spherical mirror (as had been previously thought) and discussed the focal properties of a parabolic mirror.

Apollonius was also an important founder of Greek mathematical astronomy, which used geometrical models to explain planetary theory. Ptolemy in his book Syntaxis says Apollonius introduced systems of eccentric and epicyclic motion to explain the apparent motion of the planets across the sky. This is not strictly true since the theory of epicycles certainly predates Apollonius. Nevertheless, Apollonius did make substantial contributions particularly using his great geometric skills. In particular, he made a study of the points where a planet appears stationary, namely the points where the forward motion changes to a retrograde motion or the converse.

There were also applications made by Apollonius, using his knowledge of conics, to practical problems. He developed the hemicyclium, a sundial which has the hour lines drawn on the surface of a conic section giving greater accuracy.

From http://www.gap-system.org

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Claudius Ptolemy


Born: about 85 in Egypt
Died: about 165 in Alexandria, Egypt

One of the most influential Greek astronomers and geographers of his time, Ptolemy propounded the geocentric theory in a form that prevailed for 1400 years. However, of all the ancient Greek mathematicians, it is fair to say that his work has generated more discussion and argument than any other. We shall discuss the arguments below for, depending on which are correct, they portray Ptolemy in very different lights. The arguments of some historians show that Ptolemy was a mathematician of the very top rank, arguments of others show that he was no more than a superb expositor, but far worse, some even claim that he committed a crime against his fellow scientists by betraying the ethics and integrity of his profession.

We know very little of Ptolemy’s life. He made astronomical observations from Alexandria in Egypt during the years AD 127-41. In fact the first observation which we can date exactly was made by Ptolemy on 26 March 127 while the last was made on 2 February 141. It was claimed by Theodore Meliteniotes in around 1360 that Ptolemy was born in Hermiou (which is in Upper Egypt rather than Lower Egypt where Alexandria is situated) but since this claim first appears more than one thousand years after Ptolemy lived, it must be treated as relatively unlikely to be true. In fact there is no evidence that Ptolemy was ever anywhere other than Alexandria.

His name, Claudius Ptolemy, is of course a mixture of the Greek Egyptian ‘Ptolemy’ and the Roman ‘Claudius’. This would indicate that he was descended from a Greek family living in Egypt and that he was a citizen of Rome, which would be as a result of a Roman emperor giving that ‘reward’ to one of Ptolemy’s ancestors.

We do know that Ptolemy used observations made by ‘Theon the mathematician’, and this was almost certainly Theon of Smyrna who almost certainly was his teacher. Certainly this would make sense since Theon was both an observer and a mathematician who had written on astronomical topics such as conjunctions, eclipses, occultations and transits. Most of Ptolemy’s early works are dedicated to Syrus who may have also been one of his teachers in Alexandria, but nothing is known of Syrus.

If these facts about Ptolemy’s teachers are correct then certainly in Theon he did not have a great scholar, for Theon seems not to have understood in any depth the astronomical work he describes. On the other hand Alexandria had a tradition for scholarship which would mean that even if Ptolemy did not have access to the best teachers, he would have access to the libraries where he would have found the valuable reference material of which he made good use.

Ptolemy’s major works have survived and we shall discuss them in this article. The most important, however, is the Almagest which is a treatise in thirteen books. We should say straight away that, although the work is now almost always known as the Almagest that was not its original name. Its original Greek title translates as The Mathematical Compilation but this title was soon replaced by another Greek title which means The Greatest Compilation. This was translated into Arabic as “al-majisti” and from this the title Almagest was given to the work when it was translated from Arabic to Latin.

The Almagest is the earliest of Ptolemy’s works and gives in detail the mathematical theory of the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets. Ptolemy made his most original contribution by presenting details for the motions of each of the planets. The Almagest was not superseded until a century after Copernicus presented his heliocentric theory in the De revolutionibus of 1543. Grasshoff writes in [8]:-

Ptolemy’s “Almagest” shares with Euclid‘s “Elements” the glory of being the scientific text longest in use. From its conception in the second century up to the late Renaissance, this work determined astronomy as a science. During this time the “Almagest” was not only a work on astronomy; the subject was defined as what is described in the “Almagest”.

Ptolemy describes himself very clearly what he is attempting to do in writing the work (see for example [15]):-

We shall try to note down everything which we think we have discovered up to the present time; we shall do this as concisely as possible and in a manner which can be followed by those who have already made some progress in the field. For the sake of completeness in our treatment we shall set out everything useful for the theory of the heavens in the proper order, but to avoid undue length we shall merely recount what has been adequately established by the ancients. However, those topics which have not been dealt with by our predecessors at all, or not as usefully as they might have been, will be discussed at length to the best of our ability.

Ptolemy first of all justifies his description of the universe based on the earth-centred system described by Aristotle. It is a view of the world based on a fixed earth around which the sphere of the fixed stars rotates every day, this carrying with it the spheres of the sun, moon, and planets. Ptolemy used geometric models to predict the positions of the sun, moon, and planets, using combinations of circular motion known as epicycles. Having set up this model, Ptolemy then goes on to describe the mathematics which he needs in the rest of the work. In particular he introduces trigonometrical methods based on the chord function Crd (which is related to the sine function by sin a = (Crd 2a)/120).

Ptolemy devised new geometrical proofs and theorems. He obtained, using chords of a circle and an inscribed 360-gon, the approximation

π = 3 17/120 = 3.14166

and, using √3 = chord 60°,

√3 = 1.73205.

He used formulae for the Crd function which are analogous to our formulae for sin(a + b), sin(ab) and sin a/2 to create a table of the Crd function at intervals of 1/2 a degree.

This occupies the first two of the 13 books of the Almagest and then, quoting again from the introduction, we give Ptolemy’s own description of how he intended to develop the rest of the mathematical astronomy in the work (see for example [15]):-

[After introducing the mathematical concepts] we have to go through the motions of the sun and of the moon, and the phenomena accompanying these motions; for it would be impossible to examine the theory of the stars thoroughly without first having a grasp of these matters. Our final task in this way of approach is the theory of the stars. Here too it would be appropriate to deal first with the sphere of the so-called ‘fixed stars’, and follow that by treating the five ‘planets’, as they are called.

In examining the theory of the sun, Ptolemy compares his own observations of equinoxes with those of Hipparchus and the earlier observations Meton in 432 BC. He confirmed the length of the tropical year as 1/300 of a day less than 365 1/4 days, the precise value obtained by Hipparchus. Since, as Ptolemy himself knew, the accuracy of the rest of his data depended heavily on this value, the fact that the true value is 1/128 of a day less than 365 1/4days did produce errors in the rest of the work. We shall discuss below in more detail the accusations which have been made against Ptolemy, but this illustrates clearly the grounds for these accusations since Ptolemy had to have an error of 28 hours in his observation of the equinox to produce this error, and even given the accuracy that could be expected with ancient instruments and methods, it is essentially unbelievable that he could have made an error of this magnitude. A good discussion of this strange error is contained in the excellent article [19].

Based on his observations of solstices and equinoxes, Ptolemy found the lengths of the seasons and, based on these, he proposed a simple model for the sun which was a circular motion of uniform angular velocity, but the earth was not at the centre of the circle but at a distance called the eccentricity from this centre. This theory of the sun forms the subject of Book 3 of the Almagest.

In Books 4 and 5 Ptolemy gives his theory of the moon. Here he follows Hipparchus who had studied three different periods which one could associate with the motion of the moon. There is the time taken for the moon to return to the same longitude, the time taken for it to return to the same velocity (the anomaly) and the time taken for it to return to the same latitude. Ptolemy also discusses, as Hipparchus had done, the synodic month, that is the time between successive oppositions of the sun and moon. In Book 4 Ptolemy gives Hipparchus‘s epicycle model for the motion of the moon but he notes, as in fact Hipparchus had done himself, that there are small discrepancies between the model and the observed parameters. Although noting the discrepancies, Hipparchus seems not to have worked out a better model, but Ptolemy does this in Book 5 where the model he gives improves markedly on the one proposed by Hipparchus. An interesting discussion of Ptolemy’s theory of the moon is given in [24].

Having given a theory for the motion of the sun and of the moon, Ptolemy was in a position to apply these to obtain a theory of eclipses which he does in Book 6. The next two books deal with the fixed stars and in Book 7 Ptolemy uses his own observations together with those of Hipparchus to justify his belief that the fixed stars always maintain the same positions relative to each other. He wrote (see for example [15]):-

If one were to match the above alignments against the diagrams forming the constellations on Hipparchus‘s celestial globe, he would find that the positions of the relevant stars on the globe resulting from the observations made at the time of Hipparchus, according to what he recorded, are very nearly the same as at present.

In these two book Ptolemy also discusses precession, the discovery of which he attributes to Hipparchus, but his figure is somewhat in error mainly because of the error in the length of the tropical year which he used. Much of Books 7 and 8 are taken up with Ptolemy’s star catalogue containing over one thousand stars.

The final five books of the Almagest discuss planetary theory. This must be Ptolemy’s greatest achievement in terms of an original contribution, since there does not appear to have been any satisfactory theoretical model to explain the rather complicated motions of the five planets before the Almagest. Ptolemy combined the epicycle and eccentric methods to give his model for the motions of the planets. The path of a planet P therefore consisted of circular motion on an epicycle, the centre C of the epicycle moving round a circle whose centre was offset from the earth. Ptolemy’s really clever innovation here was to make the motion of C uniform not about the centre of the circle around which it moves, but around a point called the equant which is symmetrically placed on the opposite side of the centre from the earth.

The planetary theory which Ptolemy developed here is a masterpiece. He created a sophisticated mathematical model to fit observational data which before Ptolemy’s time was scarce, and the model he produced, although complicated, represents the motions of the planets fairly well.

Toomer sums up the Almagest in [1] as follows:-

As a didactic work the “Almagest” is a masterpiece of clarity and method, superior to any ancient scientific textbook and with few peers from any period. But it is much more than that. Far from being a mere ‘systemisation’ of earlier Greek astronomy, as it is sometimes described, it is in many respects an original work.

We will return to discuss some of the accusations made against Ptolemy after commenting briefly on his other works. He published the tables which are scattered throughout the Almagest separately under the title Handy Tables. These were not merely lifted from the Almagest however but Ptolemy made numerous improvements in their presentation, ease of use and he even made improvements in the basic parameters to give greater accuracy. We only know details of the Handy Tables through the commentary by Theon of Alexandria but in [76] the author shows that care is required since Theon was not fully aware of Ptolemy’s procedures.

Ptolemy also did what many writers of deep scientific works have done, and still do, in writing a popular account of his results under the title Planetary Hypothesis. This work, in two books, again follows the familiar route of reducing the mathematical skills needed by a reader. Ptolemy does this rather cleverly by replacing the abstract geometrical theories by mechanical ones. Ptolemy also wrote a work on astrology. It may seem strange to the modern reader that someone who wrote such excellent scientific books should write on astrology. However, Ptolemy sees it rather differently for he claims that the Almagest allows one to find the positions of the heavenly bodies, while his astrology book he sees as a companion work describing the effects of the heavenly bodies on people’s lives.

In a book entitled Analemma he discussed methods of finding the angles need to construct a sundial which involves the projection of points on the celestial sphere. In Planisphaerium he is concerned with stereographic projection of the celestial sphere onto a plane. This is discussed in [48] where it is stated:-

In the stereographic projection treated by Ptolemy in the “Planisphaerium” the celestial sphere is mapped onto the plane of the equator by projection from the south pole. Ptolemy does not prove the important property that circles on the sphere become circles on the plane.

Ptolemy’s major work Geography, in eight books, attempts to map the known world giving coordinates of the major places in terms of latitude and longitude. It is not surprising that the maps given by Ptolemy were quite inaccurate in many places for he could not be expected to do more than use the available data and this was of very poor quality for anything outside the Roman Empire, and even parts of the Roman Empire are severely distorted. In [19] Ptolemy is described as:-

… a man working [on map-construction] without the support of a developed theory but within a mathematical tradition and guided by his sense of what is appropriate to the problem.

Another work on Optics is in five books and in it Ptolemy studies colour, reflection, refraction, and mirrors of various shapes. Toomer comments in [1]:-

The establishment of theory by experiment, frequently by constructing special apparatus, is the most striking feature of Ptolemy’s “Optics”. Whether the subject matter is largely derived or original, “The Optics” is an impressive example of the development of a mathematical science with due regard to physical data, and is worthy of the author of the “Almagest”.

An English translation, attempting to remove the inaccuracies introduced in the poor Arabic translation which is our only source of the Optics is given in [14].

The first to make accusations against Ptolemy was Tycho Brahe. He discovered that there was a systematic error of one degree in the longitudes of the stars in the star catalogue, and he claimed that, despite Ptolemy saying that it represented his own observations, it was merely a conversion of a catalogue due to Hipparchus corrected for precession to Ptolemy’s date. There is of course definite problems comparing two star catalogues, one of which we have a copy of while the other is lost.

After comments by Laplace and Lalande, the next to attack Ptolemy vigorously was Delambre. He suggested that perhaps the errors came from Hipparchus and that Ptolemy might have done nothing more serious than to have failed to correct Hipparchus‘s data for the time between the equinoxes and solstices. However Delambre then goes on to say (see [8]):-

One could explain everything in a less favourable but all the simpler manner by denying Ptolemy the observation of the stars and equinoxes, and by claiming that he assimilated everything from Hipparchus, using the minimal value of the latter for the precession motion.

However, Ptolemy was not without his supporters by any means and further analysis led to a belief that the accusations made against Ptolemy by Delambre were false. Boll writing in 1894 says [4]:-

To all appearances, one will have to credit Ptolemy with giving an essentially richer picture of the Greek firmament after his eminent predecessors.

Vogt showed clearly in his important paper [77] that by considering Hipparchus‘s Commentary on Aratus and Eudoxus and making the reasonable assumption that the data given there agreed with Hipparchus‘s star catalogue, then Ptolemy’s star catalogue cannot have been produced from the positions of the stars as given by Hipparchus, except for a small number of stars where Ptolemy does appear to have taken the data from Hipparchus. Vogt writes:-

This allows us to consider the fixed star catalogue as of his own making, just as Ptolemy himself vigorously states.

The most recent accusations of forgery made against Ptolemy came from Newton in [12]. He begins this book by stating clearly his views:-

This is the story of a scientific crime. … I mean a crime committed by a scientist against fellow scientists and scholars, a betrayal of the ethics and integrity of his profession that has forever deprived mankind of fundamental information about an important area of astronomy and history.

Towards the end Newton, having claimed to prove every observation claimed by Ptolemy in the Almagest was fabricated, writes [12]:-

[Ptolemy] developed certain astronomical theories and discovered that they were not consistent with observation. Instead of abandoning the theories, he deliberately fabricated observations from the theories so that he could claim that the observations prove the validity of his theories. In every scientific or scholarly setting known, this practice is called fraud, and it is a crime against science and scholarship.

Although the evidence produced by Brahe, Delambre, Newton and others certainly do show that Ptolemy’s errors are not random, this last quote from [12] is, I [EFR] believe, a crime against Ptolemy (to use Newton’s own words). The book [8] is written to study validity of these accusations and it is a work which I strongly believe gives the correct interpretation. Grasshoff writes:-

… one has to assume that a substantial proportion of the Ptolemaic star catalogue is grounded on those Hipparchan observations which Hipparchus already used for the compilation of the second part of his “Commentary on Aratus”. Although it cannot be ruled out that coordinates resulting from genuine Ptolemaic observations are included in the catalogue, they could not amount to more than half the catalogue.

… the assimilation of Hipparchan observations can no longer be discussed under the aspect of plagiarism. Ptolemy, whose intention was to develop a comprehensive theory of celestial phenomena, had no access to the methods of data evaluation using arithmetical means with which modern astronomers can derive from a set of varying measurement results, the one representative value needed to test a hypothesis. For methodological reason, then, Ptolemy was forced to choose from a set of measurements the one value corresponding best to what he had to consider as the most reliable data. When an intuitive selection among the data was no longer possible … Ptolemy had to consider those values as ‘observed’ which could be confirmed by theoretical predictions.

As a final comment we quote the epigram which is accepted by many scholars to have been written by Ptolemy himself, and it appears in Book 1 of the Almagest, following the list of contents (see for example [11]):-

Well do I know that I am mortal, a creature of one day.
But if my mind follows the winding paths of the stars
Then my feet no longer rest on earth, but standing by
Zeus himself I take my fill of ambrosia, the divine dish.

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Born: about 290 in Alexandria, Egypt
Died: about 350

Pappus of Alexandria is the last of the great Greek geometers and one of his theorems is cited as the basis of modern projective geometry.

Our knowledge of Pappus’s life is almost nil. There appear in the literature one or two references to dates for Pappus’s life which must be wrong. There is a reference in the Suda Lexicon (a work of a 10th century Greek lexicographer) which states that Pappus was a contemporary of Theon of Alexandria:

Pappus, of Alexandria, philosopher, lived about the time of the Emperor Theodosius the Elder [379 AD – 395 AD], when Theon the Philosopher, who wrote the Canon of Ptolemy, also flourished.

This would seem convincing but there is a chronological table by Theon of Alexandria which, when being copied, has had inserted next to the name of Diocletian (who ruled 284 AD – 305 AD) “at that time wrote Pappus”. Similar insertions give the dates for Ptolemy, Hipparchus and other mathematical astronomers.

Clearly both of these cannot be correct, and the known inaccuracy of the Suda led historians to favour dates for Pappus which would have him writing in the period 284 AD – 305 AD, as suggested by the insertion into Theon’s chronological table. Heath in [4] is completely convinced saying that :

Pappus lived at the end of the third century AD.

However, we now know that both the above sources are wrong, for Rome showed that it can be deduced from Pappus’s commentary on the Almagest that he observed the eclipse of the sun in Alexandria which took place on 18 October 320. This fixes clearly the date of 320 for Pappus’s commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest.

Other than this accurate date we know little else about Pappus. He was born and appears to have lived in Alexandria all his life. We know that he dedicated works to Hermodorus, Pandrosion and Megethion but other than knowing that Hermodorus was Pappus’s son, we have no further knowledge of these men. Again Pappus refers to a friend who was also a philosopher, named Hierius, but other than knowing that he encouraged Pappus to study certain mathematical problems, we know nothing else about him either. Finally a reference to Pappus in Proclus’s writings says that he headed a school in Alexandria.

Pappus’s major work in geometry is Synagoge or the Mathematical Collection which is a collection of mathematical writings in eight books thought to have been written in around 340 (although some historians believe that Pappus had completed the work by 325 AD). Heath describes the Mathematical Collection as follows:-

Obviously written with the object of reviving the classical Greek geometry, it covers practically the whole field. It is, however, a handbook or guide to Greek geometry rather than an encyclopaedia; it was intended, that is, to be read with the original works (where still extant) rather than to enable them to be dispensed with.

It seems likely that this work was not originally written as a single treatise but rather was written as a series of books dealing with different topics. Each book has its own introduction and often a valuable historical account of the topic, particularly in the case where such an account is not readily available from other sources.

Book I covered arithmetic (and is lost) while Book II is partly lost but the remaining part deals with Apollonius’s method for dealing with large numbers. The method expresses numbers as powers of a myriad, that is as powers of 10000.

Book III is divided by Pappus into four parts. The first part looks at the problem of finding two mean proportionals between two given straight lines. The second part gives a construction of the arithmetic, geometric and harmonic means. The third part describes a collection of geometrical paradoxes which Pappus says are taken from a work by Erycinus. Other than what is included in this part, we know nothing of Erycinus or his work. The final part shows how each of the five regular polyhedra can be inscribed in a sphere. The authors discuss the muddle Pappus made in Book III of the problem of displaying the arithmetic, geometric and harmonic means of two segments in one circle.

Book IV contains properties of curves including the spiral of Archimedes and the quadratrix of Hippias and includes his trisection methods. Pappus introduces the various types of curves that he will consider:-

There are, we say, three types of problem in geometry, the so-called ‘plane’, ‘solid’, and ‘linear’ problems. Those that can be solved with straight line and circle are properly called ‘plane’ problems, for the lines by which such problems are solved have their origin in a plane. Those problems that are solved by the use of one or more sections of the cone are called ‘solid’ problems. For it is necessary in the construction to use surfaces of solid figures, that is to say, cones. There remain the third type, the so-called ‘linear’ problem. For the construction in these cases curves other than those already mentioned are required, curves having a more varied and forced origin and arising from more irregular surfaces and from complex motions. Of this character are the curves discovered in the so-called ‘surface loci’ and numerous others even more involved … . These curves have many wonderful properties. More recent writers have indeed considered some of them worthy of more extended treatment, and one of the curves is called ‘the paradoxical curve’ by Menelaus. Other curves of the same type are spirals, quadratrices, cochloids, and cissoids.

Pappus introduces some of the ideas of Book V by describing how bees construct honeycombs. He concludes his discussion of honeycombs and introduces the aims of his work as follows:

Bees, then, know just this fact which is useful to them, that the hexagon is greater than the square and the triangle and will hold more honey for the same expenditure of material in constructing each. But we, claiming a greater share in wisdom than the bees, will investigate a somewhat wider problem, namely that, of all equilateral and equiangular plane figures having an equal perimeter, that which has the greater number of angles is always the greater, and the greatest of then all is the circle having its perimeter equal to them.

Also in Book V Pappus discusses the thirteen semiregular solids discovered by Archimedes. He compares the areas of figures with equal perimeters and volumes of solids with equal surface areas, proving a result due to Zenodorus that the sphere has greater volume than any regular solid with equal surface area. He also proves the related result that, for two regular solids with equal surface area, the one with the greater number of faces has the greater volume.

Books VI and VII consider books of other authors (Theodosius, Autolycus, Aristarchus, Euclid, Apollonius, Aristaeus and Eratosthenes). Book VI deals with the books on astronomy which were collected into the Little Astronomy so-called in contrast to Ptolemy’s Almagest or Greater Astronomy. As well as reviewing these works, Pappus points out errors which have somehow entered the texts.

In Book VII Pappus writes about the Treasury of Analysis:

The so-called “Treasury of Analysis”, my dear Hermodorus, is, in short, a special body of doctrine furnished for the use of those who, after going through the usual elements, wish to obtain power to solve problems set to then involving curves, and for this purpose only is it useful. It is the work of three men, Euclid the writer of the “Elements”, Apollonius of Perga and Aristaeus the elder, and proceeds by the method of analysis and synthesis.

Pappus then goes on to explain the different approaches of analysis and synthesis:

… in analysis we suppose that which is sought to be already done, and inquire what it is from which this comes about, and again what is the antecedent cause of the latter, and so on until, by retracing our steps, we light upon something already known or ranking as a first principle… But in synthesis, proceeding in the opposite way, we suppose to be already done that which was last reached in analysis, and arranging in their natural order as consequents what were formerly antecedents and linking them one with another, we finally arrive at the construction of what was sought…

The article is a wide ranging discussion of analysis and synthesis, taking this work by Pappus as a starting point.

It is in Book VII that the Pappus problem appears. This problem had a major impact on the development of geometry. It was discussed by Descartes and Newton and what is now known as Guldin’s theorem is was proved by Pappus in Book VII of the Mathematical Collection. See  for a discussion of whether Guldin knew of Pappus’s result when he published his work in 1640.

In Book VIII Pappus deals with mechanics. We quote Pappus’s own description of the subject:

The science of mechanics, my dear Hermodorus, has many important uses in practical life, and is held by philosophers to be worthy of the highest esteem, and is zealously studied by mathematicians, because it takes almost first place in dealing with the nature of the material elements of the universe. for it deals generally with the stability and movement of bodies about their centres of gravity, and their motions in space, inquiring not only into the causes of those that move in virtue of their nature, but forcibly transferring others from their own places in a motion contrary to their nature; and it contrives to do this by using theorems appropriate to the subject matter.

The whole work does not show a great deal of originality but it does show that Pappus has a deep understanding of a whole range of mathematical topics and that he had mastered all the major available mathematical techniques. He writes well, shows great clarity of thought and the Mathematical Collection is a work of very great historical importance in the study of Greek geometry.

Of Pappus’s commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest only the part on Books 5 and 6 has survived. We cannot be certain that Pappus wrote a commentary which extended to the whole 13 books, but it seems highly probable that he did. Certainly there is evidence that his commentary covered Books 1, 3 and 4 since traces exist or are quoted by other commentators on the Almagest. This commentary seems to be of much poorer quality to Pappus’s geometrical work. Neugebauer writes:-

.. the dullness and pomposity of these school treatises is only too evident. When Ptolemy in the chapter on the apparent diameter of the sun, moon and shadow simply remarks that the tangential cones in question contact the spheres within a negligible error in great circles, then Pappus refers to Euclid’s “Optics” to show that the circle of contact has a smaller diameter than the sphere, only to add a lengthy argument to demonstrate that the error committed in Ptolemy’s construction is nevertheless negligible. Or, when Ptolemy says that some phenomenon cannot take place, neither for the same clima nor for different geographical latitudes, Pappus feels obliged to explain “same clima” by “either in clima 3, or in 4, or in any other clima”, and to illustrate “different” by referring to “Rome or Alexandria”.

Neugebauer also points out that, in addition to these pointless comments, there are also comments by Pappus which are simply incorrect. In case it might be thought that the quality of the Mathematical Collection and the commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest as of such different quality that Pappus may not have written both, then this is ruled out by his references which he makes in the Mathematical Collection:

… as Archimedes showed, and as is proved by us in the commentary on the first book of the [“Almagest”] by a theorem of our own.

Of course Pappus did not write “Almagest” but the Greek title of the work.

Other commentaries which Pappus wrote include one on Euclid’s Elements. Proclus, in his own commentary on the Elements refers three times to Pappus’s commentary and Eutocius also refers to Pappus’s commentary. Part of Pappus’s commentary may exist in an Arabic translation, namely that on Book X of the Elements. However, the commentary is very different in style to that of the Mathematical Collection and if indeed Pappus is the author it is a commentary which fails to show the depth of understanding that he shows in other parts of his work.

Marinus claims that Pappus also wrote a commentary on Euclid’s Data of which nothing has survived. That Pappus wrote on Geography is stated in the Suda and a work which claims to be written by Moses of Khoren in the fifth century seems to be largely based on Pappus’s Geography. Moses writes:

We shall begin therefore after the Geography of Pappus of Alexandria, who followed the circle or special map of Claudius Ptolemy.

Another reference to Pappus in this work states:-

Having spoken of geography in general, we shall now begin to explain each of the countries according to Pappus of Alexandria.

Other works which could have been written by Pappus include one on music and one on hydrostatics. Certainly an instrument to measure liquids is attributed to him.

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Thales of Miletus


Born: about 624 BC in Miletus, Asia Minor (now Turkey)
Died: about 547 BC in Miletus, Asia Minor (now Turkey)

Thales of Miletus was the son of Examyes and Cleobuline. His parents are said by some to be from Miletus but others report that they were Phoenicians. J Longrigg writes:

But the majority opinion considered him a true Milesian by descent, and of a distinguished family.

Thales seems to be the first known Greek philosopher, scientist and mathematician although his occupation was that of an engineer. He is believed to have been the teacher of Anaximander (611 BC – 545 BC) and he was the first natural philosopher in the Milesian School. However, none of his writing survives so it is difficult to determine his views or to be certain about his mathematical discoveries. Indeed it is unclear whether he wrote any works at all and if he did they were certainly lost by the time of Aristotle who did not have access to any writings of Thales. On the other hand there are claims that he wrote a book on navigation but these are based on little evidence. In the book on navigation it is suggested that he used the constellation Ursa Minor, which he defined, as an important feature in his navigation techniques. Even if the book is fictitious, it is quite probable that Thales did indeed define the constellation Ursa Minor.

Proclus, the last major Greek philosopher, who lived around 450 AD, wrote:-

[Thales] first went to Egypt and thence introduced this study [geometry] into Greece. He discovered many propositions himself, and instructed his successors in the principles underlying many others, his method of attacking problems had greater generality in some cases and was more in the nature of simple inspection and observation in other cases.

There is a difficulty in writing about Thales and others from a similar period. Although there are numerous references to Thales which would enable us to reconstruct quite a number of details, the sources must be treated with care since it was the habit of the time to credit famous men with discoveries they did not make. Partly this was as a result of the legendary status that men like Thales achieved, and partly it was the result of scientists with relatively little history behind their subjects trying to increase the status of their topic with giving it an historical background.

Certainly Thales was a figure of enormous prestige, being the only philosopher before Socrates to be among the Seven Sages. Plutarch, writing of these Seven Sages, says that:

[Thales] was apparently the only one of these whose wisdom stepped, in speculation, beyond the limits of practical utility, the rest acquired the reputation of wisdom in politics.

This comment by Plutarch should not be seen as saying that Thales did not function as a politician. Indeed he did. He persuaded the separate states of Ionia to form a federation with a capital at Teos. He dissuaded his compatriots from accepting an alliance with Croesus and, as a result, saved the city.

It is reported that Thales predicted an eclipse of the Sun in 585 BC. The cycle of about 19 years for eclipses of the Moon was well known at this time but the cycle for eclipses of the Sun was harder to spot since eclipses were visible at different places on Earth. Thales’s prediction of the 585 BC eclipse was probably a guess based on the knowledge that an eclipse around that time was possible. The claims that Thales used the Babylonian saros, a cycle of length 18 years 10 days 8 hours, to predict the eclipse has been shown by Neugebauer to be highly unlikely since Neugebauer shows that the saros was an invention of Halley. Neugebauer wrote [11]:-

… there exists no cycle for solar eclipses visible at a given place: all modern cycles concern the earth as a whole. No Babylonian theory for predicting a solar eclipse existed at 600 BC, as one can see from the very unsatisfactory situation 400 years later, nor did the Babylonians ever develop any theory which took the influence of geographical latitude into account.

After the eclipse on 28 May, 585 BC Herodotus wrote:-

… day was all of a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on.

Longrigg in [1] even doubts that Thales predicted the eclipse by guessing, writing:-

… a more likely explanation seems to be simply that Thales happened to be the savant around at the time when this striking astronomical phenomenon occurred and the assumption was made that as a savant he must have been able to predict it.

There are several accounts of how Thales measured the height of pyramids. Diogenes Laertius writing in the second century AD quotes Hieronymus, a pupil of Aristotle:

Hieronymus says that [Thales] even succeeded in measuring the pyramids by observation of the length of their shadow at the moment when our shadows are equal to our own height.

This appears to contain no subtle geometrical knowledge, merely an empirical observation that at the instant when the length of the shadow of one object coincides with its height, then the same will be true for all other objects. A similar statement is made by Pliny:

Thales discovered how to obtain the height of pyramids and all other similar objects, namely, by measuring the shadow of the object at the time when a body and its shadow are equal in length.

Plutarch however recounts the story in a form which, if accurate, would mean that Thales was getting close to the idea of similar triangles:-

… without trouble or the assistance of any instrument [he] merely set up a stick at the extremity of the shadow cast by the pyramid and, having thus made two triangles by the impact of the sun’s rays, … showed that the pyramid has to the stick the same ratio which the shadow [of the pyramid] has to the shadow [of the stick]

Of course Thales could have used these geometrical methods for solving practical problems, having merely observed the properties and having no appreciation of what it means to prove a geometrical theorem. This is in line with the views of Russell who writes of Thales contributions to mathematics:

Thales is said to have travelled in Egypt, and to have thence brought to the Greeks the science of geometry. What Egyptians knew of geometry was mainly rules of thumb, and there is no reason to believe that Thales arrived at deductive proofs, such as later Greeks discovered.

On the other hand B L van der Waerden claims that Thales put geometry on a logical footing and was well aware of the notion of proving a geometrical theorem. However, although there is much evidence to suggest that Thales made some fundamental contributions to geometry, it is easy to interpret his contributions in the light of our own knowledge, thereby believing that Thales had a fuller appreciation of geometry than he could possibly have achieved. In many textbooks on the history of mathematics Thales is credited with five theorems of elementary geometry:-

  1. A circle is bisected by any diameter.
  2. The base angles of an isosceles triangle are equal.
  3. The angles between two intersecting straight lines are equal.
  4. Two triangles are congruent if they have two angles and one side equal.
  5. An angle in a semicircle is a right angle.

What is the basis for these claims? Proclus, writing around 450 AD, is the basis for the first four of these claims, in the third and fourth cases quoting the work History of Geometry by Eudemus of Rhodes, who was a pupil of Aristotle, as his source. The History of Geometry by Eudemus is now lost but there is no reason to doubt Proclus. The fifth theorem is believed to be due to Thales because of a passage from Diogenes Laertius book Lives of eminent philosophers written in the second century AD:

Pamphile says that Thales, who learnt geometry from the Egyptians, was the first to describe on a circle a triangle which shall be right-angled, and that he sacrificed an ox (on the strength of the discovery). Others, however, including Apollodorus the calculator, say that it was Pythagoras.

A deeper examination of the sources, however, shows that, even if they are accurate, we may be crediting Thales with too much. For example Proclus uses a word meaning something closer to ‘similar’ rather than ‘equal- in describing (ii). It is quite likely that Thales did not even have a way of measuring angles so ‘equal- angles would have not been a concept he would have understood precisely. He may have claimed no more than “The base angles of an isosceles triangle look similar”. The theorem (iv) was attributed to Thales by Eudemus for less than completely convincing reasons. Proclus writes:

[Eudemus] says that the method by which Thales showed how to find the distances of ships from the shore necessarily involves the use of this theorem.

Heath gives three different methods which Thales might have used to calculate the distance to a ship at sea. The method which he thinks it most likely that Thales used was to have an instrument consisting of two sticks nailed into a cross so that they could be rotated about the nail. An observer then went to the top of a tower, positioned one stick vertically (using say a plumb line) and then rotating the second stick about the nail until it point at the ship. Then the observer rotates the instrument, keeping it fixed and vertical, until the movable stick points at a suitable point on the land. The distance of this point from the base of the tower is equal to the distance to the ship.

Although theorem (iv) underlies this application, it would have been quite possible for Thales to devise such a method without appreciating anything of ‘congruent triangles’.

As a final comment on these five theorems, there are conflicting stories regarding theorem (iv) as Diogenes Laertius himself is aware. Also even Pamphile cannot be taken as an authority since she lived in the first century AD, long after the time of Thales. Others have attributed the story about the sacrifice of an ox to Pythagoras on discovering Pythagoras’s theorem. Certainly there is much confusion, and little certainty.

Our knowledge of the philosophy of Thales is due to Aristotle who wrote in his Metaphysics :-

Thales of Miletus taught that ‘all things are water’.

This, as Brumbaugh writes :

…may seem an unpromising beginning for science and philosophy as we know them today; but, against the background of mythology from which it arose, it was revolutionary.

Sambursky writes:

It was Thales who first conceived the principle of explaining the multitude of phenomena by a small number of hypotheses for all the various manifestations of matter.

Thales believed that the Earth floats on water and all things come to be from water. For him the Earth was a flat disc floating on an infinite ocean. It has also been claimed that Thales explained earthquakes from the fact that the Earth floats on water. Again the importance of Thales’ idea is that he is the first recorded person who tried to explain such phenomena by rational rather than by supernatural means.

It is interesting that Thales has both stories told about his great practical skills and also about him being an unworldly dreamer. Aristotle, for example, relates a story of how Thales used his skills to deduce that the next season’s olive crop would be a very large one. He therefore bought all the olive presses and then was able to make a fortune when the bumper olive crop did indeed arrive. On the other hand Plato tells a story of how one night Thales was gazing at the sky as he walked and fell into a ditch. A pretty servant girl lifted him out and said to him “How do you expect to understand what is going on up in the sky if you do not even see what is at your feet”. As Brumbaugh says, perhaps this is the first absent-minded professor joke in the West!

The bust of Thales shown above is in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, but is not contemporary with Thales and is unlikely to bear any resemblance to him.

From http://www.gap-system.org

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Pythagoras of Samos


Pythagoras of Samos is often described as the first pure mathematician. He is an extremely important figure in the development of mathematics yet we know relatively little about his mathematical achievements. Unlike many later Greek mathematicians, where at least we have some of the books which they wrote, we have nothing of Pythagoras’s writings. The society which he led, half religious and half scientific, followed a code of secrecy which certainly means that today Pythagoras is a mysterious figure.

We do have details of Pythagoras’s life from early biographies which use important original sources yet are written by authors who attribute divine powers to him, and whose aim was to present him as a god-like figure. What we present below is an attempt to collect together the most reliable sources to reconstruct an account of Pythagoras’s life. There is fairly good agreement on the main events of his life but most of the dates are disputed with different scholars giving dates which differ by 20 years. Some historians treat all this information as merely legends but, even if the reader treats it in this way, being such an early record it is of historical importance.

Pythagoras’s father was Mnesarchus, while his mother was Pythais and she was a native of Samos. Mnesarchus was a merchant who came from Tyre, and there is a story that he brought corn to Samos at a time of famine and was granted citizenship of Samos as a mark of gratitude. As a child Pythagoras spent his early years in Samos but travelled widely with his father. There are accounts of Mnesarchus returning to Tyre with Pythagoras and that he was taught there by the Chaldaeans and the learned men of Syria. It seems that he also visited Italy with his father.

Little is known of Pythagoras’s childhood. All accounts of his physical appearance are likely to be fictitious except the description of a striking birthmark which Pythagoras had on his thigh. It is probable that he had two brothers although some sources say that he had three. Certainly he was well educated, learning to play the lyre, learning poetry and to recite Homer. There were, among his teachers, three philosophers who were to influence Pythagoras while he was a young man. One of the most important was Pherekydes who many describe as the teacher of Pythagoras.

The other two philosophers who were to influence Pythagoras, and to introduce him to mathematical ideas, were Thales and his pupil Anaximander who both lived on Miletus. It is said that Pythagoras visited Thales in Miletus when he was between 18 and 20 years old. By this time Thales was an old man and, although he created a strong impression on Pythagoras, he probably did not teach him a great deal. However he did contribute to Pythagoras’s interest in mathematics and astronomy, and advised him to travel to Egypt to learn more of these subjects. Thales’s pupil, Anaximander, lectured on Miletus and Pythagoras attended these lectures. Anaximander certainly was interested in geometry and cosmology and many of his ideas would influence Pythagoras’s own views.

In about 535 BC Pythagoras went to Egypt. This happened a few years after the tyrant Polycrates seized control of the city of Samos. There is some evidence to suggest that Pythagoras and Polycrates were friendly at first and it is claimed that Pythagoras went to Egypt with a letter of introduction written by Polycrates. In fact Polycrates had an alliance with Egypt and there were therefore strong links between Samos and Egypt at this time. The accounts of Pythagoras’s time in Egypt suggest that he visited many of the temples and took part in many discussions with the priests. According to Porphyry Pythagoras was refused admission to all the temples except the one at Diospolis where he was accepted into the priesthood after completing the rites necessary for admission.

It is not difficult to relate many of Pythagoras’s beliefs, ones he would later impose on the society that he set up in Italy, to the customs that he came across in Egypt. For example the secrecy of the Egyptian priests, their refusal to eat beans, their refusal to wear even cloths made from animal skins, and their striving for purity were all customs that Pythagoras would later adopt. Porphyry and says that Pythagoras learnt geometry from the Egyptians but it is likely that he was already acquainted with geometry, certainly after teachings from Thales and Anaximander.

In 525 BC Cambyses II, the king of Persia, invaded Egypt. Polycrates abandoned his alliance with Egypt and sent 40 ships to join the Persian fleet against the Egyptians. After Cambyses had won the Battle of Pelusium in the Nile Delta and had captured Heliopolis and Memphis, Egyptian resistance collapsed. Pythagoras was taken prisoner and taken to Babylon. Iamblichus writes that Pythagoras:

… was transported by the followers of Cambyses as a prisoner of war. Whilst he was there he gladly associated with the Magoi and was instructed in their sacred rites and learnt about a very mystical worship of the gods. He also reached the acme of perfection in arithmetic and music and the other mathematical sciences taught by the Babylonians…

In about 520 BC Pythagoras left Babylon and returned to Samos. Polycrates had been killed in about 522 BC and Cambyses died in the summer of 522 BC, either by committing suicide or as the result of an accident. The deaths of these rulers may have been a factor in Pythagoras’s return to Samos but it is nowhere explained how Pythagoras obtained his freedom. Darius of Persia had taken control of Samos after Polycrates’ death and he would have controlled the island on Pythagoras’s return. This conflicts with the accounts of Porphyry and Diogenes Laertius who state that Polycrates was still in control of Samos when Pythagoras returned there.

Pythagoras made a journey to Crete shortly after his return to Samos to study the system of laws there. Back in Samos he founded a school which was called the semicircle. Iamblichus writes in the third century AD that:-

… he formed a school in the city [of Samos], the ‘semicircle’ of Pythagoras, which is known by that name even today, in which the Samians hold political meetings. They do this because they think one should discuss questions about goodness, justice and expediency in this place which was founded by the man who made all these subjects his business. Outside the city he made a cave the private site of his own philosophical teaching, spending most of the night and daytime there and doing research into the uses of mathematics…

Pythagoras left Samos and went to southern Italy in about 518 BC (some say much earlier). Iamblichus  gives some reasons for him leaving. First he comments on the Samian response to his teaching methods:-

… he tried to use his symbolic method of teaching which was similar in all respects to the lessons he had learnt in Egypt. The Samians were not very keen on this method and treated him in a rude and improper manner.

This was, according to Iamblichus, used in part as an excuse for Pythagoras to leave Samos:-

… Pythagoras was dragged into all sorts of diplomatic missions by his fellow citizens and forced to participate in public affairs. He knew that all the philosophers before him had ended their days on foreign soil so he decided to escape all political responsibility, alleging as his excuse, according to some sources, the contempt the Samians had for his teaching method.

Pythagoras founded a philosophical and religious school in Croton (now Crotone, on the east of the heel of southern Italy) that had many followers. Pythagoras was the head of the society with an inner circle of followers known as mathematikoi. The mathematikoi lived permanently with the Society, had no personal possessions and were vegetarians. They were taught by Pythagoras himself and obeyed strict rules. The beliefs that Pythagoras held were:

(1) that at its deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature,
(2) that philosophy can be used for spiritual purification,
(3) that the soul can rise to union with the divine,
(4) that certain symbols have a mystical significance, and
(5) that all brothers of the order should observe strict loyalty and secrecy.

Both men and women were permitted to become members of the Society, in fact several later women Pythagoreans became famous philosophers. The outer circle of the Society were known as the akousmatics and they lived in their own houses, only coming to the Society during the day. They were allowed their own possessions and were not required to be vegetarians.

Of Pythagoras’s actual work nothing is known. His school practised secrecy and communalism making it hard to distinguish between the work of Pythagoras and that of his followers. Certainly his school made outstanding contributions to mathematics, and it is possible to be fairly certain about some of Pythagoras’s mathematical contributions. First we should be clear in what sense Pythagoras and the mathematikoi were studying mathematics. They were not acting as a mathematics research group does in a modern university or other institution. There were no ‘open problems’ for them to solve, and they were not in any sense interested in trying to formulate or solve mathematical problems.

Rather Pythagoras was interested in the principles of mathematics, the concept of number, the concept of a triangle or other mathematical figure and the abstract idea of a proof. As Brumbaugh writes:

It is hard for us today, familiar as we are with pure mathematical abstraction and with the mental act of generalisation, to appreciate the originality of this Pythagorean contribution.

In fact today we have become so mathematically sophisticated that we fail even to recognise 2 as an abstract quantity. There is a remarkable step from 2 ships + 2 ships = 4 ships, to the abstract result 2 + 2 = 4, which applies not only to ships but to pens, people, houses etc. There is another step to see that the abstract notion of 2 is itself a thing, in some sense every bit as real as a ship or a house.

Pythagoras believed that all relations could be reduced to number relations. As Aristotle wrote:-

The Pythagorean having been brought up in the study of mathematics, thought that things are numbers and that the whole cosmos is a scale and a number.

This generalisation stemmed from Pythagoras’s observations in music, mathematics and astronomy. Pythagoras noticed that vibrating strings produce harmonious tones when the ratios of the lengths of the strings are whole numbers, and that these ratios could be extended to other instruments. In fact Pythagoras made remarkable contributions to the mathematical theory of music. He was a fine musician, playing the lyre, and he used music as a means to help those who were ill.

Pythagoras studied properties of numbers which would be familiar to mathematicians today, such as even and odd numbers, triangular numbers, perfect numbers etc. However to Pythagoras numbers had personalities which we hardly recognise as mathematics today:

Each number had its own personality – masculine or feminine, perfect or incomplete, beautiful or ugly. This feeling modern mathematics has deliberately eliminated, but we still find overtones of it in fiction and poetry. Ten was the very best number: it contained in itself the first four integers – one, two, three, and four [1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10] – and these written in dot notation formed a perfect triangle.

Of course today we particularly remember Pythagoras for his famous geometry theorem. Although the theorem, now known as Pythagoras’s theorem, was known to the Babylonians 1000 years earlier he may have been the first to prove it. Proclus, the last major Greek philosopher, who lived around 450 AD wrote:

After [Thales, etc.] Pythagoras transformed the study of geometry into a liberal education, examining the principles of the science from the beginning and probing the theorems in an immaterial and intellectual manner: he it was who discovered the theory of irrational and the construction of the cosmic figures.

Again Proclus, writing of geometry, said:-

I emulate the Pythagoreans who even had a conventional phrase to express what I mean “a figure and a platform, not a figure and a sixpence”, by which they implied that the geometry which is deserving of study is that which, at each new theorem, sets up a platform to ascend by, and lifts the soul on high instead of allowing it to go down among the sensible objects and so become subservient to the common needs of this mortal life.

Heath gives a list of theorems attributed to Pythagoras, or rather more generally to the Pythagoreans.

(i) The sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. Also the Pythagoreans knew the generalisation which states that a polygon with n sides has sum of interior angles 2n – 4 right angles and sum of exterior angles equal to four right angles.

(ii) The theorem of Pythagoras – for a right angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. We should note here that to Pythagoras the square on the hypotenuse would certainly not be thought of as a number multiplied by itself, but rather as a geometrical square constructed on the side. To say that the sum of two squares is equal to a third square meant that the two squares could be cut up and reassembled to form a square identical to the third square.

(iii) Constructing figures of a given area and geometrical algebra. For example they solved equations such as a (ax) = x2 by geometrical means.

(iv) The discovery of irrationals. This is certainly attributed to the Pythagoreans but it does seem unlikely to have been due to Pythagoras himself. This went against Pythagoras’s philosophy the all things are numbers, since by a number he meant the ratio of two whole numbers. However, because of his belief that all things are numbers it would be a natural task to try to prove that the hypotenuse of an isosceles right angled triangle had a length corresponding to a number.

(v) The five regular solids. It is thought that Pythagoras himself knew how to construct the first three but it is unlikely that he would have known how to construct the other two.

(vi) In astronomy Pythagoras taught that the Earth was a sphere at the centre of the Universe. He also recognised that the orbit of the Moon was inclined to the equator of the Earth and he was one of the first to realise that Venus as an evening star was the same planet as Venus as a morning star.

Primarily, however, Pythagoras was a philosopher. In addition to his beliefs about numbers, geometry and astronomy described above, he held:

… the following philosophical and ethical teachings: … the dependence of the dynamics of world structure on the interaction of contraries, or pairs of opposites; the viewing of the soul as a self-moving number experiencing a form of metempsychosis, or successive reincarnation in different species until its eventual purification (particularly through the intellectual life of the ethically rigorous Pythagoreans); and the understanding …that all existing objects were fundamentally composed of form and not of material substance. Further Pythagorean doctrine identified the brain as the locus of the soul; and prescribed certain secret cultic practices.

Their practical ethics are also described:-

In their ethical practices, the Pythagorean were famous for their mutual friendship, unselfishness, and honesty.

Pythagoras’s Society at Croton was not unaffected by political events despite his desire to stay out of politics. Pythagoras went to Delos in 513 BC to nurse his old teacher Pherekydes who was dying. He remained there for a few months until the death of his friend and teacher and then returned to Croton. In 510 BC Croton attacked and defeated its neighbour Sybaris and there is certainly some suggestions that Pythagoras became involved in the dispute. Then in around 508 BC the Pythagorean Society at Croton was attacked by Cylon, a noble from Croton itself. Pythagoras escaped to Metapontium and the most authors say he died there, some claiming that he committed suicide because of the attack on his Society. Iamblichus in quotes one version of events:-

Cylon, a Crotoniate and leading citizen by birth, fame and riches, but otherwise a difficult, violent, disturbing and tyrannically disposed man, eagerly desired to participate in the Pythagorean way of life. He approached Pythagoras, then an old man, but was rejected because of the character defects just described. When this happened Cylon and his friends vowed to make a strong attack on Pythagoras and his followers. Thus a powerfully aggressive zeal activated Cylon and his followers to persecute the Pythagoreans to the very last man. Because of this Pythagoras left for Metapontium and there is said to have ended his days.

This seems accepted by most but Iamblichus himself does not accept this version and argues that the attack by Cylon was a minor affair and that Pythagoras returned to Croton. Certainly the Pythagorean Society thrived for many years after this and spread from Croton to many other Italian cities. Gorman argues that this is a strong reason to believe that Pythagoras returned to Croton and quotes other evidence such as the widely reported age of Pythagoras as around 100 at the time of his death and the fact that many sources say that Pythagoras taught Empedokles to claim that he must have lived well after 480 BC.

The evidence is unclear as to when and where the death of Pythagoras occurred. Certainly the Pythagorean Society expanded rapidly after 500 BC, became political in nature and also spilt into a number of factions. In 460 BC the Society:

… was violently suppressed. Its meeting houses were everywhere sacked and burned; mention is made in particular of “the house of Milo” in Croton, where 50 or 60 Pythagoreans were surprised and slain. Those who survived took refuge at Thebes and other places.

From http://www.gap-system.org

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Born: about 325 BC
Died: about 265 BC in Alexandria, Egypt

Euclid of Alexandria is the most prominent mathematician of antiquity best known for his treatise on mathematics The Elements. The long lasting nature of The Elements must make Euclid the leading mathematics teacher of all time. However little is known of Euclid’s life except that he taught at Alexandria in Egypt. Proclus, the last major Greek philosopher, who lived around 450 AD wrote:

Not much younger than these [pupils of Plato] is Euclid, who put together the “Elements”, arranging in order many of Eudoxus’s theorems, perfecting many of Theaetetus’s, and also bringing to irrefutable demonstration the things which had been only loosely proved by his predecessors. This man lived in the time of the first Ptolemy; for Archimedes, who followed closely upon the first Ptolemy makes mention of Euclid, and further they say that Ptolemy once asked him if there were a shorted way to study geometry than the Elements, to which he replied that there was no royal road to geometry. He is therefore younger than Plato’s circle, but older than Eratosthenes and Archimedes; for these were contemporaries, as Eratosthenes somewhere says. In his aim he was a Platonist, being in sympathy with this philosophy, whence he made the end of the whole “Elements” the construction of the so-called Platonic figures.

There is other information about Euclid given by certain authors but it is not thought to be reliable. Two different types of this extra information exists. The first type of extra information is that given by Arabian authors who state that Euclid was the son of Naucrates and that he was born in Tyre. It is believed by historians of mathematics that this is entirely fictitious and was merely invented by the authors.

The second type of information is that Euclid was born at Megara. This is due to an error on the part of the authors who first gave this information. In fact there was a Euclid of Megara, who was a philosopher who lived about 100 years before the mathematician Euclid of Alexandria. It is not quite the coincidence that it might seem that there were two learned men called Euclid. In fact Euclid was a very common name around this period and this is one further complication that makes it difficult to discover information concerning Euclid of Alexandria since there are references to numerous men called Euclid in the literature of this period.

Returning to the quotation from Proclus given above, the first point to make is that there is nothing inconsistent in the dating given. However, although we do not know for certain exactly what reference to Euclid in Archimedes’ work Proclus is referring to, in what has come down to us there is only one reference to Euclid and this occurs in On the sphere and the cylinder. The obvious conclusion, therefore, is that all is well with the argument of Proclus and this was assumed until challenged by Hjelmslev. He argued that the reference to Euclid was added to Archimedes’ book at a later stage, and indeed it is a rather surprising reference. It was not the tradition of the time to give such references, moreover there are many other places in Archimedes where it would be appropriate to refer to Euclid and there is no such reference. Despite Hjelmslev’s claims that the passage has been added later, Bulmer-Thomas writes:

Although it is no longer possible to rely on this reference, a general consideration of Euclid’s works … still shows that he must have written after such pupils of Plato as Eudoxus and before Archimedes.

For further discussion on dating Euclid. This is far from an end to the arguments about Euclid the mathematician. The situation is best summed up by Itard who gives three possible hypotheses.

(i) Euclid was an historical character who wrote the Elements and the other works attributed to him.

(ii) Euclid was the leader of a team of mathematicians working at Alexandria. They all contributed to writing the ‘complete works of Euclid’, even continuing to write books under Euclid’s name after his death.

(iii) Euclid was not an historical character. The ‘complete works of Euclid’ were written by a team of mathematicians at Alexandria who took the name Euclid from the historical character Euclid of Megara who had lived about 100 years earlier.

It is worth remarking that Itard, who accepts Hjelmslev’s claims that the passage about Euclid was added to Archimedes, favours the second of the three possibilities that we listed above. We should, however, make some comments on the three possibilities which, it is fair to say, sum up pretty well all possible current theories.

There is some strong evidence to accept (i). It was accepted without question by everyone for over 2000 years and there is little evidence which is inconsistent with this hypothesis. It is true that there are differences in style between some of the books of the Elements yet many authors vary their style. Again the fact that Euclid undoubtedly based the Elements on previous works means that it would be rather remarkable if no trace of the style of the original author remained.

Even if we accept (i) then there is little doubt that Euclid built up a vigorous school of mathematics at Alexandria. He therefore would have had some able pupils who may have helped out in writing the books. However hypothesis (ii) goes much further than this and would suggest that different books were written by different mathematicians. Other than the differences in style referred to above, there is little direct evidence of this.

Although on the face of it (iii) might seem the most fanciful of the three suggestions, nevertheless the 20th century example of Bourbaki shows that it is far from impossible. Henri Cartan, André Weil, Jean Dieudonné, Claude Chevalley and Alexander Grothendieck wrote collectively under the name of Bourbaki and Bourbaki‘s Eléments de mathématiques contains more than 30 volumes. Of course if (iii) were the correct hypothesis then Apollonius, who studied with the pupils of Euclid in Alexandria, must have known there was no person ‘Euclid’ but the fact that he wrote:-

…. Euclid did not work out the syntheses of the locus with respect to three and four lines, but only a chance portion of it …

certainly does not prove that Euclid was an historical character since there are many similar references to Bourbaki by mathematicians who knew perfectly well that Bourbaki was fictitious. Nevertheless the mathematicians who made up the Bourbaki team are all well known in their own right and this may be the greatest argument against hypothesis (iii) in that the ‘Euclid team’ would have to have consisted of outstanding mathematicians. So who were they?

We shall assume in this article that hypothesis (i) is true but, having no knowledge of Euclid, we must concentrate on his works after making a few comments on possible historical events. Euclid must have studied in Plato’s Academy in Athens to have learnt of the geometry of Eudoxus and Theaetetus of which he was so familiar.

None of Euclid’s works have a preface, at least none has come down to us so it is highly unlikely that any ever existed, so we cannot see any of his character, as we can of some other Greek mathematicians, from the nature of their prefaces. Pappus writes that Euclid was:-

… most fair and well disposed towards all who were able in any measure to advance mathematics, careful in no way to give offence, and although an exact scholar not vaunting himself.

Some claim these words have been added to Pappus, and certainly the point of the passage (in a continuation which we have not quoted) is to speak harshly (and almost certainly unfairly) of Apollonius. The picture of Euclid drawn by Pappus is, however, certainly in line with the evidence from his mathematical texts. Another story told by Stobaeus is the following:-

… someone who had begun to learn geometry with Euclid, when he had learnt the first theorem, asked Euclid “What shall I get by learning these things?” Euclid called his slave and said “Give him threepence since he must make gain out of what he learns”.

Euclid’s most famous work is his treatise on mathematics The Elements. The book was a compilation of knowledge that became the centre of mathematical teaching for 2000 years. Probably no results in The Elements were first proved by Euclid but the organisation of the material and its exposition are certainly due to him. In fact there is ample evidence that Euclid is using earlier textbooks as he writes the Elements since he introduces quite a number of definitions which are never used such as that of an oblong, a rhombus, and a rhomboid.

The Elements begins with definitions and five postulates. The first three postulates are postulates of construction, for example the first postulate states that it is possible to draw a straight line between any two points. These postulates also implicitly assume the existence of points, lines and circles and then the existence of other geometric objects are deduced from the fact that these exist. There are other assumptions in the postulates which are not explicit. For example it is assumed that there is a unique line joining any two points. Similarly postulates two and three, on producing straight lines and drawing circles, respectively, assume the uniqueness of the objects the possibility of whose construction is being postulated.

The fourth and fifth postulates are of a different nature. Postulate four states that all right angles are equal. This may seem “obvious” but it actually assumes that space in homogeneous – by this we mean that a figure will be independent of the position in space in which it is placed. The famous fifth, or parallel, postulate states that one and only one line can be drawn through a point parallel to a given line. Euclid’s decision to make this a postulate led to Euclidean geometry. It was not until the 19th century that this postulate was dropped and non-euclidean geometries were studied.

There are also axioms which Euclid calls ‘common notions’. These are not specific geometrical properties but rather general assumptions which allow mathematics to proceed as a deductive science. For example:-

Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.

Zeno of Sidon, about 250 years after Euclid wrote the Elements, seems to have been the first to show that Euclid’s propositions were not deduced from the postulates and axioms alone, and Euclid does make other subtle assumptions.

The Elements is divided into 13 books. Books one to six deal with plane geometry. In particular books one and two set out basic properties of triangles, parallels, parallelograms, rectangles and squares. Book three studies properties of the circle while book four deals with problems about circles and is thought largely to set out work of the followers of Pythagoras. Book five lays out the work of Eudoxus on proportion applied to commensurable and incommensurable magnitudes. Heath says :

Greek mathematics can boast no finer discovery than this theory, which put on a sound footing so much of geometry as depended on the use of proportion.

Book six looks at applications of the results of book five to plane geometry.

Books seven to nine deal with number theory. In particular book seven is a self-contained introduction to number theory and contains the Euclidean algorithm for finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers. Book eight looks at numbers in geometrical progression but van der Waerden writes that it contains:-

… cumbersome enunciations, needless repetitions, and even logical fallacies. Apparently Euclid’s exposition excelled only in those parts in which he had excellent sources at his disposal.

Book ten deals with the theory of irrational numbers and is mainly the work of Theaetetus. Euclid changed the proofs of several theorems in this book so that they fitted the new definition of proportion given by Eudoxus.

Books eleven to thirteen deal with three-dimensional geometry. In book eleven the basic definitions needed for the three books together are given. The theorems then follow a fairly similar pattern to the two-dimensional analogues previously given in books one and four. The main results of book twelve are that circles are to one another as the squares of their diameters and that spheres are to each other as the cubes of their diameters. These results are certainly due to Eudoxus. Euclid proves these theorems using the “method of exhaustion” as invented by Eudoxus. The Elements ends with book thirteen which discusses the properties of the five regular polyhedra and gives a proof that there are precisely five. This book appears to be based largely on an earlier treatise by Theaetetus.

Euclid’s Elements is remarkable for the clarity with which the theorems are stated and proved. The standard of rigour was to become a goal for the inventors of the calculus centuries later. As Heath writes:

This wonderful book, with all its imperfections, which are indeed slight enough when account is taken of the date it appeared, is and will doubtless remain the greatest mathematical textbook of all time. … Even in Greek times the most accomplished mathematicians occupied themselves with it: Heron, Pappus, Porphyry, Proclus and Simplicius wrote commentaries; Theon of Alexandria re-edited it, altering the language here and there, mostly with a view to greater clearness and consistency…

It is a fascinating story how the Elements has survived from Euclid’s time and this is told well by Fowler. He describes the earliest material relating to the Elements which has survived:-

Our earliest glimpse of Euclidean material will be the most remarkable for a thousand years, six fragmentary ostraca containing text and a figure … found on Elephantine Island in 1906/07 and 1907/08… These texts are early, though still more than 100 years after the death of Plato (they are dated on palaeographic grounds to the third quarter of the third century BC); advanced (they deal with the results found in the “Elements” [book thirteen] … on the pentagon, hexagon, decagon, and icosahedron); and they do not follow the text of the Elements. … So they give evidence of someone in the third century BC, located more than 500 miles south of Alexandria, working through this difficult material… this may be an attempt to understand the mathematics, and not a slavish copying …

The next fragment that we have dates from 75 – 125 AD and again appears to be notes by someone trying to understand the material of the Elements.

More than one thousand editions of The Elements have been published since it was first printed in 1482. Heath discusses many of the editions and describes the likely changes to the text over the years.

B L van der Waerden assesses the importance of the Elements:

Almost from the time of its writing and lasting almost to the present, the Elements has exerted a continuous and major influence on human affairs. It was the primary source of geometric reasoning, theorems, and methods at least until the advent of non-Euclidean geometry in the 19th century. It is sometimes said that, next to the Bible, the “Elements” may be the most translated, published, and studied of all the books produced in the Western world.

Euclid also wrote the following books which have survived: Data (with 94 propositions), which looks at what properties of figures can be deduced when other properties are given; On Divisions which looks at constructions to divide a figure into two parts with areas of given ratio; Optics which is the first Greek work on perspective; and Phaenomena which is an elementary introduction to mathematical astronomy and gives results on the times stars in certain positions will rise and set. Euclid’s following books have all been lost: Surface Loci (two books), Porisms (a three book work with, according to Pappus, 171 theorems and 38 lemmas), Conics (four books), Book of Fallacies and Elements of Music. The Book of Fallacies is described by Proclus.

Since many things seem to conform with the truth and to follow from scientific principles, but lead astray from the principles and deceive the more superficial, [Euclid] has handed down methods for the clear-sighted understanding of these matters also … The treatise in which he gave this machinery to us is entitled Fallacies, enumerating in order the various kinds, exercising our intelligence in each case by theorems of all sorts, setting the true side by side with the false, and combining the refutation of the error with practical illustration.

Elements of Music is a work which is attributed to Euclid by Proclus. We have two treatises on music which have survived, and have by some authors attributed to Euclid, but it is now thought that they are not the work on music referred to by Proclus.

Euclid may not have been a first class mathematician but the long lasting nature of The Elements must make him the leading mathematics teacher of antiquity or perhaps of all time. As a final personal note let me add that my [EFR] own introduction to mathematics at school in the 1950s was from an edition of part of Euclid’s Elements and the work provided a logical basis for mathematics and the concept of proof which seem to be lacking in school mathematics today.

From http://www.gap-system.org

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