Real Mathematics – Killer Numbers#6

Socrates’ Lesson

In the previous articles I have talked about Plato and his effect on science; particularly geometry. Thanks to his book named Meno, we know about one of the most influential philosophers of all times: Socrates.


Meno was another book of Plato that was written as dialogues. In this book there were two main characters: Meno and Socrates.

In the beginning of the book Meno asks Socrates if virtue is teachable or not. Even though Meno is crucial for understanding Socrates’ philosophy, there is one part of the book that interests me the most.


The book gets interesting when Socrates starts asking “the boy” who was raised near Meno. At first, Socrates is asking the boy to describe shape of a square and its properties. After a series of questions Socrates asks his main problem: How can one double the area of a given square?

This is an ancient problem that is also known as “doubling the square”. The boy answers Socrates’ questions and eventually finds the area of a square with side length of 2 units. The boy also concludes that since this area has 4 units, double of such square should have 8 units. But when asked to find one side of such square, the boy gives the answer of 4 units. However after his answer the boy realizes that a square with sides of 4 units has 16 units of area, not 8.

Classical Greek Mathematics

After this point the boy follows Socrates’ descriptions in order to draw a square that has 8 units of area. At first Socrates commands the boy to draw a square that has sides 2:


This square’s area is 4 units. Then Socrates tells him to draw three identical squares:


Now Socrates tells the boy to unite these squares as follows:


Socrates asks the boy to draw the diagonals in each square. They both know the fact that a diagonal divides a square into two equal areas:


It is easy to see that the inner square has a total area of 8 units:


One side of the inner square is the diagonal from small squares. In order to find that diagonal the boy uses Pythagorean Theorem:



Even though he only uses a compass and an unmarked ruler, the boy found a length that is irrational thanks to Socrates’ instructions. Back in ancient Greece numbers were imagined as lengths/magnitudes. This is why as long as they constructed it neither Socrates nor the boy cared about irrationality of a length.

Pythagoras and his cult claimed that all numbers are rational and they tried to hide the facts that irrational numbers exist. But in the end philosophers like Socrates won the debate and helped mathematics to flourish into many branches.

M. Serkan Kalaycıoğlu

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