Real Mathematics – Geometry #2

Mathematics without numbers

Around 2700 years ago ancient Greeks were in total control of every part of science (Philosophy, geometry and mathematics in particular.). For centuries Greek hundreds of historically important figures like Thales, Pythagoras, Eudoxus and Euclid dominated mathematics.

Ancient Greek mathematicians had a significant difference. Unlike their colleagues from other parts of the world, they choose not to use number symbols. According to them, geometry was the foundation of mathematics, and like everything in mathematics numbers arose from geometry as well.

Even though they created respectable number systems and symbols, comparing to their advanced knowledge in other branches of mathematics (particularly geometry) they were behind with numbers. It was like as if they didn’t care about number systems and symbols as much as they cared geometry and other parts of science.

It is mesmerizing to hear that founders of geometry didn’t need numbers in their works.

Ruler, Compass and Unit

In ancient Greece, philosophers (meaning scientists) used magnitude instead of numbers. They were drawing straight line segments to show a magnitude. In other words, ancient Greek mathematicians were drawing lines instead of writing number symbols. Moreover, they used unmarked ruler and compass as their only tools. (I’ll be explaining the use of them in the upcoming articles.)

Q: How did Greeks manage to make mathematics without numbers?

Assume that we have positive integers a and b.


Their addition makes a+b. Using straight line segments we can show a+b as follows:



If a is greater than b, extraction can be written as a-b. This can be shown with line segments like the following:



Multiplication of them gives a.b. We can use properties of triangles in order to explain multiplication with lines. Assume that we have a triangle with side a and 1:

Now we will extend the sides of this triangle so that, the side a will become a.b while the side 1 becomes b.


Let’s say that we want to find a/b with lines. This time we can use a similar approach that we used in multiplication. First we construct a triangle with sides a and b:

Then we shorten the sides so that length of the side a will become a/b while length of the side b becomes 1.

Taking the Square Root

To take the square root of the number a, first we should draw a straight line segment that has length a+1. Then we mark the segment such that left side of the mark will have length a, and right will have length 1. Finally draw a semicircle that has diameter a+1. Now draw a perpendicular from the circle’s boundary to the marked point. That perpendicular line will have length √a.

One wonders…

If ancient Greeks knew how to make calculations, does it mean that they were involved with algebra and number theory too? (Check out the name Diophantus.)

M. Serkan Kalaycıoğlu

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