The Helenistic Period of Greek Mathematics next up previous
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Aristarchus of Samos

(ca. 310-230 BC)

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He was very knowledgeable in all sciences, especially astronomy and mathematics.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He discovered an improved sundial, with a concave hemispherical circle.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He was the first to formulate the Copernican hypotheses and is sometimes called the Ancient Copernican He countered the nonparallax objection by asserting that the stars to be so far distant that parallax was not measurable.


tex2html_wrap_inline264 Wrote On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon. In it he observed that when the moon is half full, the angle between the lines of sight to the sun and the moon is less than a right angle by 1/30 of a quadrant. From this he concluded that the distance from the earth to the sun is more than 18 but less than 20 times the distance from the earth to the moon. (Actual tex2html_wrap_inline727 ). Without trigonometry he was aware of and used the fact that


He also made other trigonometic estimates -- without trigonometry.



Apollonius of Perga
(ca 262 BC - 190 BC)

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Apollonius was born in Perga in Pamphilia (now Turkey), but was possibly educated in Alexandria where he spent some time teaching. Very little is known of his life. He seems to have felt himself a rival of Archimedes. In any event he worked on similar problems.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He was known as the ``great geometer" because of his work on conics.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Apollonius wrote many books. All but one are lost. Among those we know he wrote are:

Quick Delivery

Cutting-off of a Ratio

Cutting-off of an Area

On Determinate Section


Vergings (Inclinations)

Plane Loci

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Apollonius was 25 years younger than Archimedes, and they together with Euclid stood well above all other mathematicians of the first century of this period. Because of them, this period is sometimes called the ``golden age" of Greek mathematics.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 In his book Quick Delivery (lost), he gives the approximation to tex2html_wrap_inline739 as 3.1416. We do not know his method.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 His only known work is On Conics - 8 Books only 4 survive. Features:

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Using the double oblique cone he constructs the conics parabola, ellipse, hyperbola, whose names he fixed for all time.


tex2html_wrap_inline264 He made use of the idea of Symptoms which were similar to equations, there results an analytic-like geometry - but without coordinates!

Proposition I-33. If AC is constructed, where |AE| = |ED|, then AC is tangent to the parabola.


Proof. Assume AC cuts the parabola at K. Then CK lies within the parabola. Pick F on that segment and construct a tex2html_wrap_inline761 to AD at B and G on the curve. Then


Since G and C lie on the curve, the symptom shows that tex2html_wrap_inline775 and tex2html_wrap_inline777 implies tex2html_wrap_inline779 . This implies from (*) that


Thus tex2html_wrap_inline783 . Since |AE| = |DE| it follows that tex2html_wrap_inline787 and since |BE|>|EA| it follows that tex2html_wrap_inline791 . (Why?) Since AB=EA+EB, this is a contradiction.

Proposition I-34. (ellipse) Choose A so that


Then AC is tangent to the ellipse at C.


The Apollonius model for the sun used epicyles. The sun rotates about a circle whose center revolves about the earth. The directions of rotation are opposed. The ratio



There was also the eccenter model, designed to explain the seasons better.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He improved upon the numbering system of Archimedes by using the base tex2html_wrap_inline356 .

tex2html_wrap_inline264 In the works of Apollonius, Greek mathematics reached its zenith. Without his predecessors, the foremost being Euclid, Apollonius never would have reached this height. Together, they dominated geometry for two thousand years. With the works of Apollonius, mathematics was now well beyond the reaches of the dedicated amateur. Only a professional would be able to advance this theory further.

(fl 140 B.C.)

Hipparchus of Nicaea was a scientist of the first rank. So carefully accurate were his observations and calculations that he is known in antiquity as the ``lover of truth." He worked in nearly every field of astronomy and his reckonings were canon for 17 centuries.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Only one work of his remains, a commentary on Phainomena of Eudoxus and Aratus of Soli. We know him, however, from Ptolemy's The Almagest. Indeed the ``Ptolemaic Theory" should be called Hippachian.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 His mathematical studies of astronomical models required a computation of a table of sines. He constructed a table of chords for astronomical use. Here a chord was given by Crd tex2html_wrap_inline807

in modern notation.


tex2html_wrap_inline264 Hipparchus knew the half angle formula as well.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He could compute the chord of every angle from tex2html_wrap_inline813 to 180 tex2html_wrap_inline815

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Using no doubt Babylonnian observations, he improved the lunar, solar and sidereal years. He reckoned the solar year at 365 tex2html_wrap_inline376 days, less 4 minutes, 48 seconds -- an error of 6 minutes from current calculations. He computed the lunar month at 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, 2 tex2html_wrap_inline378 seconds -- less than one second off. He also computed the synodic periods of the planets with astonishing accuracy.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He estimated the earth-moon distance at 250,000 miles, less than 5 percent off.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Hipparchus almost concluded the orbit of the earth about the sun to be elliptic through his theory of ``eccentrics" to account for orbital irregularities.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 In about 129 B.C., he made a catalogue of 1080 known fixed stars in terms of celestial longitude and latitude. Comparison of his chart with that of Timochares from 166 years earlier, he made his most brilliant observation. Noting a tex2html_wrap_inline386 shift in the apparent position of the stars he predicted the precession of the equinoxesgif -- the advance, day by day, of the moment when the equinoctial points come to the meridian. He calculated the precession to be 36 seconds/year -- 14 seconds slower than the current estimate of 50 seconds.

Cladius Ptolemy
(100-178 AD)

Heron of Alexandria
1 tex2html_wrap_inline827 century A.D.

Very little is known of Heron's life. However we do have his book: Metrica which was more of a handbook. In it we find the famous Heron's formula. For any triangle of sides tex2html_wrap_inline829 and c, and with perimeter s= a+b+c, the areas is given by


He also gives formulas for the area of regular polygons of n sides, each of length a:


Nicomachus of Gerasa
(fl 100 AD)

tex2html_wrap_inline841 Nicomachus was probably a neo-Pythagorean as he wrote on numbers and music. The period from 30BC to 641 AD is sometimes called the Second Alexandrian School.

tex2html_wrap_inline841 He studied in Alexandria.

tex2html_wrap_inline841 Only two of his books are extant:

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Introduction to Arithmetic

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Introduction to Harmonics

tex2html_wrap_inline841 A third book on geometry is lost.

Introduction to Arithmetic - in two books

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Book I is a classification of integers no proofs For example we have


tex2html_wrap_inline264 Classification of ratios of numbers. Assume a/b is completely reduced form of A/B. (i.e. a and b are relative prime)


tex2html_wrap_inline264 Book II discusses plane and solid numbers but with tex2html_wrap_inline889 . (Were the proofs removed in the many translations?) He studies the very Pythagorean:ß

triangular numbers square numbers pentagonal numbers hexagonal numbers heptagonal numbers

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He notes an interesting result about cubes:


This should be compared with the summation of odd numbers to achieve squares. (Recall, the square numbers of Pythagoras.)

The other known work, Introduction to Arithmetic was a ``handbook'' designed for students, primarily. It was written at a much lower level than Euclid's Elements but was studied intensively in Europe and the Arabic World throughout the early Middle Ages.

Other Great Geometers

Hypsicles of Alexandria (fl. 175 BC) added a fourteenth book to the Elements on regular solids. In short, it concerns the comparison of the volumes of the icosahedron and the dodecahedron inscribed in the same sphere.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 In another work, Risings, we find for the first time in Greek mathematics the right angle divided in Babylonian manner into 90 degrees. He does not use exact trigonometry calculations, but only a rough approximation. For example, he uses as data the times of rising for the signs from Aries to Virgo as an arithmetic progression.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He also studied the polygonal numbers, the tex2html_wrap_inline897 one of which is given by


Diocles of Carystus, fl 180 BC, invented the cissoid, or ivy shaped curve. It was used for the duplication problem. In modern terms it's equation can be written as


tex2html_wrap_inline264 Diocles also solved an open problem posed by Archimedes, that of dividing a sphere into two parts whose volumes have a prescribed ratio.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He was able to solve certain cubics by intersecting an ellipse and a hyperbola.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He studied refraction and reflection in the book On Burning Mirrors.

Nicomedes,(fl. 260 BC), wrote Introduction Arithmetica. tex2html_wrap_inline264 He discovered the conchoid and used it for angle trisection and finding two mean proportionals. The conchoid is given by


Eratosthenes of Cyrene, (c. 276 - c. 195 BC)

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Eratosthenes achieved distinction in many fields. and rnaked second only to the best in each. His admirers call him the second Plato and some called him beta, indicating that he was the second of the wise men of antiquity. By the age of 40, his distinction was so great that Ptomemy III made him head of the Alexandrian Library.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He wrote a volume of verse and a history of comedy.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He wrote mathematical monographs and devised mechanical means of finding mean proportions in continued proportion between two straight lines. tex2html_wrap_inline264 He also invented the sieve for determining primes.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 In a remarkable achievement he attempted the measurement of the earth's circumference, and hence diameter. Using a deep well in Syene (nowadays Aswan) and an Obelisk in Alexandria, he measured the angle cast by the sun at noonday in midsummer at both places. He measured the sun to be vertical in Syene and making an angle equal to 1/50 of a circle at Alexandria. With this data he measured the circumference of the earth to be 25,000 miles. Remember, this measurement of the radius of the earth was made in tex2html_wrap_inline917 250 B.C. Here's the diagram:


In modern terms, we have distance = radius tex2html_wrap_inline919 angle. Using the angle to be 1/50 of a circle, we obtain

tex2html_wrap_inline921 stades

= 25,000 miles

tex2html_wrap_inline264 He also calculated the distance between the tropics as tex2html_wrap_inline504 of the circumference, which make the obliquity of the ecliptic tex2html_wrap_inline506 , an error of 1/2 of one percent.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 Having measured the earth he set out to describe it, compiling accounts of all voyagers. He advocated regarding each person not as a Greek of Babylonnian, but as an individual with individual merits.

tex2html_wrap_inline264 It is said that in his old age he became blind and committed suicide by starvation.

Perseus (75 BC) discovered spiric sections, curves obtained by cutting solids, not cones. In modern terms a spire is given by


Zenodorus (fl 180 BC) - isoperimetric figures (same perimeter different shape)

tex2html_wrap_inline841 Of all regular polygons of equal perimeter, that is greatest in areas has the most angles.

tex2html_wrap_inline841 A circle is greater than any regular polygon of equal contour.

tex2html_wrap_inline841 Of all polygons of the same number of sides and equal perimeter the equilateral and equiangular polygon is the greatest in area.

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Next: About this document

Don Allen
Mon Feb 24 08:16:11 CST 1997