The History of Mathematics

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Table of Geometry Cyclopaedia

Geometry (Ancient Greek: γεωμετρία; geo- “earth”, -metria “measurement”) is a branch of mathematics concerned with questions of shape, size, relative position of figures, and the properties of space. Geometry is one of the oldest mathematical sciences. Initially a body of practical knowledge concerning lengths, areas, and volumes, in the 3rd century BC geometry was put into an axiomatic form by Euclid, whose treatment—Euclidean geometry—set a standard for many centuries to follow.[1] Archimedes developed ingenious techniques for calculating areas and volumes, in many ways anticipating modern integral calculus. The field of astronomy, especially mapping the positions of the stars and planets on the celestial sphere and describing the relationship between movements of celestial bodies, served as an important source of geometric problems during the next one and a half millennia. A mathematician who works in the field of geometry is called a geometer.

The introduction of coordinates by René Descartes and the concurrent development of algebra marked a new stage for geometry, since geometric figures, such as plane curves, could now be represented analytically, i.e., with functions and equations. This played a key role in the emergence of infinitesimal calculus in the 17th century. Furthermore, the theory of perspective showed that there is more to geometry than just the metric properties of figures: perspective is the origin of projective geometry. The subject of geometry was further enriched by the study of intrinsic structure of geometric objects that originated with Euler and Gauss and led to the creation of topology and differential geometry.

In Euclid’s time there was no clear distinction between physical space and geometrical space. Since the 19th-century discovery of non-Euclidean geometry, the concept of space has undergone a radical transformation, and the question arose which geometrical space best fits physical space. With the rise of formal mathematics in the 20th century, also ‘space’ (and ‘point’, ‘line’, ‘plane’) lost its intuitive contents, so today we have to distinguish between physical space, geometrical spaces (in which ‘space’, ‘point’ etc. still have their intuitive meaning) and abstract spaces. Contemporary geometry considers manifolds, spaces that are considerably more abstract than the familiar Euclidean space, which they only approximately resemble at small scales. These spaces may be endowed with additional structure, allowing one to speak about length. Modern geometry has multiple strong bonds with physics, exemplified by the ties between pseudo-Riemannian geometry and general relativity. One of the youngest physical theories, string theory, is also very geometric in flavour.

While the visual nature of geometry makes it initially more accessible than other parts of mathematics, such as algebra or number theory, geometric language is also used in contexts far removed from its traditional, Euclidean provenance (for example, in fractal geometry and algebraic geometry).

The earliest recorded beginnings of geometry can be traced to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 2nd millennium BC. Early geometry was a collection of empirically discovered principles concerning lengths, angles, areas, and volumes, which were developed to meet some practical need in surveying, construction, astronomy, and various crafts. The earliest known texts on geometry are the Egyptian Rhind Papyrus (2000-1800 BC) and Moscow Papyrus (c. 1890 BC), the Babylonian clay tablets such as Plimpton 322 (1900 BC). For example, the Moscow Papyrus gives a formula for calculating the volume of a truncated pyramid, or frustum. South of Egypt the ancient Nubians established a system of geometry including early versions of sun clocks.

In the 7th century BC, the Greek mathematician Thales of Miletus used geometry to solve problems such as calculating the height of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore. He is credited with the first use of deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving four corollaries to Thales’ Theorem. Pythagoras established the Pythagorean School, which is credited with the first proof of the Pythagorean theorem, though the statement of the theorem has a long history[Eudoxus (408–c.355 BC) developed the method of exhaustion, which allowed the calculation of areas and volumes of curvilinear figures,[14] as well as a theory of ratios that avoided the problem of incommensurable magnitudes, which enabled subsequent geometers to make significant advances. Around 300 BC, geometry was revolutionized by Euclid, whose Elements, widely considered the most successful and influential textbook of all time,[15] introduced mathematical rigor through the axiomatic method and is the earliest example of the format still used in mathematics today, that of definition, axiom, theorem, and proof. Although most of the contents of the Elements were already known, Euclid arranged them into a single, coherent logical framework.[16] The Elements was known to all educated people in the West until the middle of the 20th century and its contents are still taught in geometry classes today.[17] Archimedes (c.287–212 BC) of Syracuse used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, and gave remarkably accurate approximations of Pi.[18] He also studied the spiral bearing his name and obtained formulas for the volumes of surfaces of revolution.
Woman teaching geometry. Illustration at the beginning of a medieval translation of Euclid’s Elements, (c.1310)

In the Middle Ages, mathematics in medieval Islam contributed to the development of geometry, especially algebraic geometry and geometric algebra. Al-Mahani (b. 853) conceived the idea of reducing geometrical problems such as duplicating the cube to problems in algebra. Thābit ibn Qurra (known as Thebit in Latin) (836–901) dealt with arithmetic operations applied to ratios of geometrical quantities, and contributed to the development of analytic geometry. Omar Khayyám (1048–1131) found geometric solutions to cubic equations. The theorems of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), Omar Khayyam and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi on quadrilaterals, including the Lambert quadrilateral and Saccheri quadrilateral, were the first theorems on elliptical geometry and hyperbolic geometry, and along with their alternative postulates, such as Playfair’s axiom, these works had a considerable influence on the development of non-Euclidean geometry among later European geometers, including Witelo, Levi ben Gerson, Alfonso, John Wallis, and Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri.

In the early 17th century, there were two important developments in geometry. The first was the creation of analytic geometry, or geometry with coordinates and equations, by René Descartes (1596–1650) and Pierre de Fermat (1601–1665). This was a necessary precursor to the development of calculus and a precise quantitative science of physics. The second geometric development of this period was the systematic study of projective geometry by Girard Desargues (1591–1661). Projective geometry is the study of geometry without measurement, just the study of how points align with each other.

Two developments in geometry in the 19th century changed the way it had been studied previously. These were the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries by Lobachevsky, Bolyai and Gauss and of the formulation of symmetry as the central consideration in the Erlangen Programme of Felix Klein (which generalized the Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries). Two of the master geometers of the time were Bernhard Riemann, working primarily with tools from mathematical analysis, and introducing the Riemann surface, and Henri Poincaré, the founder of algebraic topology and the geometric theory of dynamical systems. As a consequence of these major changes in the conception of geometry, the concept of “space” became something rich and varied, and the natural background for theories as different as complex analysis and classical mechanics.

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