IX. GREEK SCIENCE OF THE ALEXANDRIAN OR HELLENISTIC PERIOD

Curiously enough, the discovery which Archimedes himself is said to have considered the most important of all his innovations is one that seems much less striking. It is the answer to the question, What is the relation in bulk between a sphere and its circumscribing cylinder? Archimedes finds that the ratio is simply two to three. We are not informed as to how he reached his conclusion, but an obvious method would be to immerse a ball in a cylindrical cup. The experiment is one which any one can make for himself, with approximate accuracy, with the aid of a tumbler and a solid rubber ball or a billiard-ball of just the right size. Another geometrical problem which Archimedes solved was the problem as to the size of a triangle which has equal area with a circle; the answer being, a triangle having for its base the circumference of the circle and for its altitude the radius. Archimedes solved also the problem of the relation of the diameter of the circle to its circumference; his answer being a close approximation to the familiar 3.1416, which every tyro in geometry will recall as the equivalent of pi.

Numerous other of the studies of Archimedes having reference to conic sections, properties of curves and spirals, and the like, are too technical to be detailed here. The extent of his mathematical knowledge, however, is suggested by the fact that he computed in great detail the number of grains of sand that would be required to cover the sphere of the sun's orbit, making certain hypothetical assumptions as to the size of the earth and the distance of the sun for the purposes of argument. Mathematicians find his computation peculiarly interesting because it evidences a crude conception of the idea of logarithms. From our present stand-point, the paper in which this calculation is contained has considerable interest because of its assumptions as to celestial mechanics. Thus Archimedes starts out with the preliminary assumption that the circumference of the earth is less than three million stadia. It must be understood that this assumption is purely for the sake of argument. Archimedes expressly states that he takes this number because it is "ten times as large as the earth has been supposed to be by certain investigators." Here, perhaps, the reference is to Eratosthenes, whose measurement of the earth we shall have occasion to revert to in a moment. Continuing, Archimedes asserts that the sun is larger than the earth, and the earth larger than the moon. In this assumption, he says, he is following the opinion of the majority of astronomers. In the third place, Archimedes assumes that the diameter of the sun is not more than thirty times greater than that of the moon. Here he is probably basing his argument upon another set of measurements of Aristarchus, to which, also, we shall presently refer more at length. In reality, his assumption is very far from the truth, since the actual diameter of the sun, as we now know, is something like four hundred times that of the moon. Fourth, the circumference of the sun is greater than one side of the thousand- faced figure inscribed in its orbit. The measurement, it is expressly stated, is based on the measurements of Aristarchus, who makes the diameter of the sun 1/170 of its orbit. Archimedes adds, however, that he himself has measured the angle and that it appears to him to be less than 1/164, and greater than 1/200 part of the orbit. That is to say, reduced to modern terminology, he places the limit of the sun's apparent size between thirty-three minutes and twenty-seven minutes of arc. As the real diameter is thirty-two minutes, this calculation is surprisingly exact, considering the implements then at command. But the honor of first making it must be given to Aristarchus and not to Archimedes.

We need not follow Archimedes to the limits of his incomprehensible numbers of sand-grains. The calculation is chiefly remarkable because it was made before the introduction of the so-called Arabic numerals had simplified mathematical calculations. It will be recalled that the Greeks used letters for numerals, and, having no cipher, they soon found themselves in difficulties when large numbers were involved. The Roman system of numerals simplified the matter somewhat, but the beautiful simplicity of the decimal system did not come into vogue until the Middle Ages, as we shall see. Notwithstanding the difficulties, however, Archimedes followed out his calculations to the piling up of bewildering numbers, which the modern mathematician finds to be the consistent outcome of the problem he had set himself.

But it remains to notice the most interesting feature of this document in which the calculation of the sand- grains is contained. "It was known to me," says Archimedes, "that most astronomers understand by the expression 'world' (universe) a ball of which the centre is the middle point of the earth, and of which the radius is a straight line between the centre of the earth and the sun." Archimedes himself appears to accept this opinion of the majority,—it at least serves as well as the contrary hypothesis for the purpose of his calculation,—but he goes on to say: "Aristarchus of Samos, in his writing against the astronomers, seeks to establish the fact that the world is really very different from this. He holds the opinion that the fixed stars and the sun are immovable and that the earth revolves in a circular line about the sun, the sun being at the centre of this circle." This remarkable bit of testimony establishes beyond question the position of Aristarchus of Samos as the Copernicus of antiquity. We must make further inquiry as to the teachings of the man who had gained such a remarkable insight into the true system of the heavens.

ARISTARCHUS OF SAMOS, THE COPERNICUS OF ANTIQUITY