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Eratosthenes of Cyrene

Eratosthenes of Cyrene
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Eratosthenes of Cyrene

Born: 276 BC in Cyrene, North Africa (now Shahhat, Libya)

Died: 194 BC in Alexandria, Egypt

Eratosthenes was born in Cyrene which is now in Libya in North Africa. His teachers included the scholar Lysanias of Cyrene and the philosopher Ariston of Chios who had studied under Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. Eratosthenes also studied under the poet and scholar Callimachus who had also been born in Cyrene. Eratosthenes then spent some years studying in Athens.

The library at Alexandria was planned by Ptolemy I Soter and the project came to fruition under his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The library was based on copies of the works in the library of Aristotle. Ptolemy II Philadelphus appointed one of Eratosthenes' teachers Callimachus as the second librarian. When Ptolemy III Euergetes succeeded his father in 245 BC and he persuaded Eratosthenes to go to Alexandria as the tutor of his son Philopator. On the death of Callimachus in about 240 BC, Eratosthenes became the third librarian at Alexandria, in the library in a temple of the Muses called the Mouseion. The library is said to have contained hundreds of thousands of papyrus and vellum scrolls.

Despite being a leading all-round scholar, Eratosthenes was considered to fall short of the highest rank. Heath writes:-

[Eratosthenes] was, indeed, recognised by his contemporaries as a man of great distinction in all branches of knowledge, though in each subject he just fell short of the highest place. On the latter ground he was called Beta, and another nickname applied to him, Pentathlos, has the same implication, representing as it does an all-round athlete who was not the first runner or wrestler but took the second prize in these contests as well as others.

Certainly this is a harsh nickname to give to a man whose accomplishments in many different areas are remembered today not only as historically important but, remarkably in many cases, still providing a basis for modern scientific methods.

One of the important works of Eratosthenes was Platonicus which dealt with the mathematics which underlie Plato's philosophy. This work was heavily used by Theon of Smyrna when he wrote Expositio rerum mathematicarum and, although Platonicus is now lost, Theon of Smyrna tells us that Eratosthenes' work studied the basic definitions of geometry and arithmetic, as well as covering such topics as music.

One rather surprising source of information concerning Eratosthenes is from a forged letter. In his commentary on Proposition 1 of Archimedes' Sphere and cylinder Book II, Eutocius reproduces a letter reputed to have been written by Eratosthenes to Ptolemy III Euergetes. The letter describes the history of the problem of the duplication of the cube and, in particular, it describes a mechanical device invented by Eratosthenes to find line segments x and y so that, for given segments a and b,

a : x = x : y = y : b.

By the famous result of Hippocrates it was known that solving the problem of finding two mean proportionals between a number and its double was equivalent to solving the problem of duplicating the cube. Although the letter is a forgery, parts of it are taken from Eratosthenes' own writing. The letter, which occupies an important place in the history of mathematics, is discussed in detail in . An original Arabic text of this letter was once kept in the library of the St Joseph University in Beirut. However it has now vanished and the details given in come from photographs taken of the letter before its disappearance.

Other details of what Eratosthenes wrote in Platonicus are given by Theon of Smyrna. In particular he described there the history of the problem of duplicating the cube (see Heath):-

... when the god proclaimed to the Delians through the oracle that, in order to get rid of a plague, they should construct an alter double that of the existing one, their craftsmen fell into great perplexity in their efforts to discover how a solid could be made the double of a similar solid; they therefore went to ask Plato about it, and he replied that the oracle meant, not that the god wanted an alter of double the size, but that he wished, in setting them the task, to shame the Greeks for their neglect of mathematics and their contempt of geometry.

Eratosthenes erected a column at Alexandria with an epigram inscribed on it relating to his own mechanical solution to the problem of doubling the cube:-

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