“There is no royal road to geometry.”
From Euclid to the king who asked Euclid if there is an easier way to learn geometry.
Up until now I have mentioned Euclid and his book Elements a few times. This masterpiece is actually a collection of 13 books and was considered as the source of only known geometry for thousands of years. Historical figures including Newton, Leibniz, Omar Khayyam and many others learned mathematics through Euclid’s Elements.
First book of Elements starts with 23 seemingly obvious and simple definitions. I will mention some of them below.
Elements Book I
Definition 1: A point is that of which has no parts. (Zero dimensions)
Definition 2: A line is length without breadth. (One dimension)
Definition 3: The extremities of a line are points.
Definition 4: A straight line is any one which lies evenly with points itself.
Definition 8: A plane angle is the inclination of the lines to one another when two lines in a plane meet one another and are not lying in a straight-line.
Definition 15: A circle is a plane figure contained by a single line such that all of the straight-lines radiating towards from one point amongst those lying inside the figure are equal to one another.
After reading these definitions for the first time, a few question marks popped up in my head.
For instance the first definition suggests that a point has no dimensions. If that’s so, how can one show a point lying on a plane?
Is it even possible to show something that has no dimensions?!
Which of these two can suggest a point to us? Obviously their sizes don’t matter and neither of them is an illustration of an actual point.
In this context, second definition is not different from the first one: One can’t draw something that has no breadth.
Eighth definition is about angles. In order to draw an illustration for a random angle one must know how to draw lines, straight lines and dots.
I’ve just showed you that even basic geometrical shapes are impossible to demonstrate. We can only imagine them in our minds. This means that in a way architects are selling illusions.
It is being told that mathematics has abstract and tangible parts. Whenever a student is dealing with abstract mathematics, teacher ought to give tangible examples so that student can comprehend with the subject easily. Nevertheless, we are helpless even when we want to give a full tangible explanation to a simple thing like a straight line.
Magic inside the Elements
In the first proposition of the first book of Elements given a random straight line, Euclid is showing us how to draw an equilateral triangle from that line.
Just to remind you, Euclid only used an unmarked ruler and a compass in his methods. Stop here and try to think of a way to construct an equilateral triangle from a random straight line.
- Assume that we have a finite straight line AB.
- Take AB as radius and draw a circle that has center A.
- Now take AB as radius and draw another circle that has center B this time.
- These circles will intersect at two points. Call one of them C.
- Connect A to C. One can easily see that AB and AC are radii; hence they are equal in length.
- Then connect B to C. One can observe that BC and BA are radii; hence they are equal in length.
- AB and AC, BA and BC are equal. Since AB and BA are the same straight line one can conclude that AB=AC=BC.
- These three straight lines construct an equilateral triangle.
These methods are taken from a book that was written around 2300-2400 years ago. What I find fascinating about mathematics is that we are not even capable of showing what a dot is, but we can also explore other planets using the power of the language of mathematics.
Now use Euclid’s materials (an unmarked ruler and a compass) and try to draw the twin of a given random straight line. Hint: Analyze the second proposition of the book I of Elements.
M. Serkan Kalaycıoğlu