Quadrivium Two: Geometry

Cornelis Cort 1565 Geometry

Whist sitting in school, slaving away with compasses and a ruler, one hardly remembers that geometry is the study of the measurement of the earth. Earth. The thing we sit on, utilize, and finally rest in when this is all over. The geometry in schools today looks nothing like the geometry of 3000 years ago. It is difficult to divorce geometry from the other liberal arts when we take into consideration the scale to while discoveries are interconnected. Geometry arose from the needs of agriculture, civilization, and war. For so much of this, we can thank Archimedes of Syracuse. A student of Euclid in the 3rd c. BCE, his advances in the field of geometry furthered irrigation (Archimedes’ Screw), astronomy (the first planetarium), and weights & measures (Archimedes’ Principle). The most interesting, to me, is The Method of Exhaustion (remember Dialectica…?), also known as “The Method” or “Archimedes’ Method.

“…, to estimate the area of a circle, he constructed a larger polygon outside the circle and a smaller one inside it. He first enclosed the circle in a triangle, then in a square, pentagon, hexagon, etc, etc, each time approximating the area of the circle more closely. By this archimedes_circleso-called “method of exhaustion” (or simply “Archimedes’ Method”), he effectively homed in on a value for one of the most important numbers in all of mathematics, π.” 1

Linked together with this Method is the “Method of Mechanical Theorems.” Proofs are everything to the mathematician, and in his Method of Mechanical Theorems, Archimedes had none that would be accepted. He set out using Eudoxus’ the Method of Exhaustion to prove what he knew to be true. In a letter to Eratosthenes, in manuscripts discovered in 1906, Archimedes outlines his thought processes. This document is known as the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Certain theorems first became clear to me by means of a mechanical method. Then, however, they had to be proved geometrically since the method provided no real proof. It is obviously easier to find a proof when we have already learned something about the question by means of the method than it is to find one without such advance knowledge.

The importance of these discoveries and the methods by which Archimedes came to them may be obvious – who doesn’t need π? However, it is also fascinating to peer inside the mathematician’s mind and view it with a Freemason’s perspective. Here was a man who could see the Plan, understand the Plan, and only needed to bring it to life: a divine spark of wisdom, the will to discover, and beauty in its presentation.

For an interesting and short expose on The Method and the “Archimedes Palmipsest,” whence this Method is documented, review  “The Illustrated Method of Archimedes” by  Andre Koch Torres Assis and Ceno Pietro Magnaghi. The PDF can be found here.

Additionally, the originally translated letter from Archimedes to Eratosthenes can be downloaded here. (Thank you, JSTOR.)


Just a note (1): The Story of Mathematics, Luke Mastin – http://www.storyofmathematics.com/hellenistic_archimedes.html – I’ve done my best to verify statements here, and so should you.

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