A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter IX
Greek science of the alexandrian or hellenistic period
Eratosthenes, "the surveyor of the world"
An altogether remarkable man was this native of Cyrene, who came to Alexandria from Athens to be the chief librarian of Ptolemy Euergetes. He was not merely an astronomer and a geographer, but a poet and grammarian as well. His contemporaries jestingly called him Beta the Second, because he was said through the universality of his attainments to be "a second Plato" in philosophy, "a second Thales" in astronomy, and so on throughout the list. He was also called the "surveyor of the world," in recognition of his services to geography. Hipparchus said of him, perhaps half jestingly, that he had studied astronomy as a geographer and geography as an astronomer. It is not quite clear whether the epigram was meant as compliment or as criticism. Similar phrases have been turned against men of versatile talent in every age. Be that as it may, Eratosthenes passed into history as the father of scientific geography and of scientific chronology; as the astronomer who first measured the obliquity of the ecliptic; and as the inventive genius who performed the astounding feat of measuring the size of the globe on which we live at a time when only a relatively small portion of that globe's surface was known to civilized man. It is no discredit to approach astronomy as a geographer and geography as an astronomer if the results are such as these. What Eratosthenes really did was to approach both astronomy and geography from two seemingly divergent points of attack - namely, from the stand-point of the geometer and also from that of the poet. Perhaps no man in any age has brought a better combination of observing and imaginative faculties to the aid of science.

Nearly all the discoveries of Eratosthenes are associated with observations of the shadows cast by the sun. We have seen that, in the study of the heavenly bodies, much depends on the measurement of angles. Now the easiest way in which angles can be measured, when solar angles are in question, is to pay attention, not to the sun itself, but to the shadow that it casts. We saw that Thales made some remarkable measurements with the aid of shadows, and we have more than once referred to the gnomon, which is the most primitive, but which long remained the most important, of astronomical instruments. It is believed that Eratosthenes invented an important modification of the gnomon which was elaborated afterwards by Hipparchus and called an armillary sphere. This consists essentially of a small gnomon, or perpendicular post, attached to a plane representing the earth's equator and a hemisphere in imitation of the earth's surface. With the aid of this, the shadow cast by the sun could be very accurately measured. It involves no new principle. Every perpendicular post or object of any kind placed in the sunlight casts a shadow from which the angles now in question could be roughly measured. The province of the armillary sphere was to make these measurements extremely accurate.

With the aid of this implement, Eratosthenes carefully noted the longest and the shortest shadows cast by the gnomon - that is to say, the shadows cast on the days of the solstices. He found that the distance between the tropics thus measured represented 47 degrees 42' 39" of arc. One-half of this, or 23 degrees 5,' 19.5", represented the obliquity of the ecliptic - that is to say, the angle by which the earth's axis dipped from the perpendicular with reference to its orbit. This was a most important observation, and because of its accuracy it has served modern astronomers well for comparison in measuring the trifling change due to our earth's slow, swinging wobble. For the earth, be it understood, like a great top spinning through space, holds its position with relative but not quite absolute fixity. It must not be supposed, however, that the experiment in question was quite new with Eratosthenes. His merit consists rather in the accuracy with which he made his observation than in the novelty of the conception; for it is recorded that Eudoxus, a full century earlier, had remarked the obliquity of the ecliptic. That observer had said that the obliquity corresponded to the side of a pentadecagon, or fifteen-sided figure, which is equivalent in modern phraseology to twenty- four degrees of arc. But so little is known regarding the way in which Eudoxus reached his estimate that the measurement of Eratosthenes is usually spoken of as if it were the first effort of the kind.

Much more striking, at least in its appeal to the popular imagination, was that other great feat which Eratosthenes performed with the aid of his perfected gnomon - the measurement of the earth itself. When we reflect that at this period the portion of the earth open to observation extended only from the Straits of Gibraltar on the west to India on the east, and from the North Sea to Upper Egypt, it certainly seems enigmatical - at first thought almost miraculous - that an observer should have been able to measure the entire globe. That he should have accomplished this through observation of nothing more than a tiny bit of Egyptian territory and a glimpse of the sun's shadow makes it seem but the more wonderful. Yet the method of Eratosthenes, like many another enigma, seems simple enough once it is explained. It required but the application of a very elementary knowledge of the geometry of circles, combined with the use of a fact or two from local geography - which detracts nothing from the genius of the man who could reason from such simple premises to so wonderful a conclusion.

Stated in a few words, the experiment of Eratosthenes was this. His geographical studies had taught him that the town of Syene lay directly south of Alexandria, or, as we should say, on the same meridian of latitude. He had learned, further, that Syene lay directly under the tropic, since it was reported that at noon on the day of the summer solstice the gnomon there cast no shadow, while a deep well was illumined to the bottom by the sun. A third item of knowledge, supplied by the surveyors of Ptolemy, made the distance between Syene and Alexandria five thousand stadia. These, then, were the preliminary data required by Eratosthenes. Their significance consists in the fact that here is a measured bit of the earth's arc five thousand stadia in length. If we could find out what angle that bit of arc subtends, a mere matter of multiplication would give us the size of the earth. But how determine this all-important number? The answer came through reflection on the relations of concentric circles. If you draw any number of circles, of whatever size, about a given centre, a pair of radii drawn from that centre will cut arcs of the same relative size from all the circles. One circle may be so small that the actual arc subtended by the radii in a given case may be but an inch in length, while another circle is so large that its corresponding are is measured in millions of miles; but in each case the same number of so-called degrees will represent the relation of each arc to its circumference. Now, Eratosthenes knew, as just stated, that the sun, when on the meridian on the day of the summer solstice, was directly over the town of Syene. This meant that at that moment a radius of the earth projected from Syene would point directly towards the sun. Meanwhile, of course, the zenith would represent the projection of the radius of the earth passing through Alexandria. All that was required, then, was to measure, at Alexandria, the angular distance of the sun from the zenith at noon on the day of the solstice to secure an approximate measurement of the arc of the sun's circumference, corresponding to the arc of the earth's surface represented by the measured distance between Alexandria and Syene.

The reader will observe that the measurement could not be absolutely accurate, because it is made from the surface of the earth, and not from the earth's centre, but the size of the earth is so insignificant in comparison with the distance of the sun that this slight discrepancy could be disregarded.

The way in which Eratosthenes measured this angle was very simple. He merely measured the angle of the shadow which his perpendicular gnomon at Alexandria cast at mid-day on the day of the solstice, when, as already noted, the sun was directly perpendicular at Syene. Now a glance at the diagram will make it clear that the measurement of this angle of the shadow is merely a convenient means of determining the precisely equal opposite angle subtending an arc of an imaginary circle passing through the sun; the are which, as already explained, corresponds with the arc of the earth's surface represented by the distance between Alexandria and Syene. He found this angle to represent 7 degrees 12', or one-fiftieth of the circle. Five thousand stadia, then, represent one-fiftieth of the earth's circumference; the entire circumference being, therefore, 250,000 stadia. Unfortunately, we do not know which one of the various measurements used in antiquity is represented by the stadia of Eratosthenes. According to the researches of Lepsius, however, the stadium in question represented 180 meters, and this would make the earth, according to the measurement of Eratosthenes, about twenty-eight thousand miles in circumference, an answer sufficiently exact to justify the wonder which the experiment excited in antiquity, and the admiration with which it has ever since been regarded.


FIG. 1. AF is a gnomon at Alexandria; SB a gnomon at Svene; IS and JK represent the sun's rays. The angle actually measured by Eratosthenes is KFA, as determined by the shadow cast by the gnomon AF. This angle is equal to the opposite angle JFL, which measures the sun's distance from the zenith; and which is also equal to the angle AES - to determine the Size of which is the real object of the entire measurement.

FIG. 2 shows the form of the gnomon actually employed in antiquity. The hemisphere KA being marked with a scale, it is obvious that in actual practice Eratosthenes required only to set his gnomon in the sunlight at the proper moment, and read off the answer to his problem at a glance. The simplicity of the method makes the result seem all the more wonderful.}

Of course it is the method, and not its details or its exact results, that excites our interest. And beyond question the method was an admirable one. Its result, however, could not have been absolutely accurate, because, while correct in principle, its data were defective. In point of fact Syene did not lie precisely on the same meridian as Alexandria, neither did it lie exactly on the tropic. Here, then, are two elements of inaccuracy. Moreover, it is doubtful whether Eratosthenes made allowance, as he should have done, for the semi-diameter of the sun in measuring the angle of the shadow. But these are mere details, scarcely worthy of mention from our present stand-point. What perhaps is deserving of more attention is the fact that this epoch-making measurement of Eratosthenes may not have been the first one to be made. A passage of Aristotle records that the size of the earth was said to be 400,000 stadia. Some commentators have thought that Aristotle merely referred to the area of the inhabited portion of the earth and not to the circumference of the earth itself, but his words seem doubtfully susceptible of this interpretation; and if he meant, as his words seem to imply, that philosophers of his day had a tolerably precise idea of the globe, we must assume that this idea was based upon some sort of measurement. The recorded size, 400,000 stadia, is a sufficient approximation to the truth to suggest something more than a mere unsupported guess. Now, since Aristotle died more than fifty years before Eratosthenes was born, his report as to the alleged size of the earth certainly has a suggestiveness that cannot be overlooked; but it arouses speculations without giving an inkling as to their solution. If Eratosthenes had a precursor as an earth-measurer, no hint or rumor has come down to us that would enable us to guess who that precursor may have been. His personality is as deeply enveloped in the mists of the past as are the personalities of the great prehistoric discoverers. For the purpose of the historian, Eratosthenes must stand as the inventor of the method with which his name is associated, and as the first man of whom we can say with certainty that he measured the size of the earth. Right worthily, then, had the Alexandrian philosopher won his proud title of "surveyor of the world."




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.