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Example text

37 7 The Britannica Guide to Geometry 7 Aristarchus’ value for the solar distance was confirmed by an astonishing coincidence. Ptolemy equated the maximum distance of the Moon in its eccentric orbit with the closest approach of Mercury riding on its epicycle; the farthest distance of Mercury with the closest of Venus; and the farthest of Venus with the closest of the Sun. Thus, he could compute the solar distance in terms of the lunar distance and thence the terrestrial radius. His answer agreed with that of Aristarchus.

Astronomers remarked that the eccentric orbit representing the Sun’s annual motion could be replaced by a pair of circles, a deferent centred on the Earth and an epicycle the centre of which moved along the circumference of the deferent. That gave two observationally equivalent solar theories based on two quite different mechanisms. Geometry was too prolific of alternatives to disclose the true principles of nature. The Greeks, who had raised a sublime science from a pile of practical recipes, discovered that in reversing the process, in reapplying their mathematics to the world, they had no securer claims to truth than the Egyptian rope pullers.

127–145 CE in Alexandria, Egypt) worked out complete sets of circles for all the planets. In order to account for phenomena arising from the Earth’s motion around the Sun, the Ptolemaic system included a secondary circle known as an epicycle, whose centre moved along the path of the primary orbital circle, known as the deferent. Ptolemy’s Great Compilation, or Almagest after its Arabic translation, was to astronomy what Euclid’s Elements was to geometry. Contrary to the Elements, however, the Almagest deploys geometry for the purpose of calculation.

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4th Geometry Festival, Budapest

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