Cracking tales of historical mathematics and its interplay with science, philosophy, and culture. Revisionist history galore. Contrarian takes on received wisdom. Implications for teaching. Informed by current scholarship. By Dr Viktor Blåsjö.
Euclid spends a lot of time in the Elements constructing figures with his ubiquitous ruler and compass. Why did he think this was important? Why did he think this was better than a geometry that has only theorems and no constructions? In fact, constructions protect geometry from foundational problems to which it would otherwise be susceptible, such as inconsistencies, hidden assumptions, verbal logic fallacies, and diagrammatic fallacies.
Created equal: Euclid’s Postulates 1-4
The etymology of the term “postulate” suggests that Euclid’s axioms were once questioned. Indeed, the drawing of lines and circles can be regarded as depending on motion, which is supposedly proved impossible by Zeno’s paradoxes. Although whether these postulates correspond to ruler and compass or not is debatable, especially since Euclid seems to restrict himself to a “collapsible” compass in Proposition 2. Furthermore, why did Euclid feel the need to postulate that “all right angles are equal”? Perhaps in order to rule out non-flat surfaces such as cones.
That which has no part: Euclid’s definitions
Euclid’s definitions of point, line, and straightness allow a range of mathematical and philosophical interpretation. Historically, however, these definitions may not have been in the original text of the Elements at all. Regardless, the subtlety of defining fundamental concepts such as straightness is best seen by considering the geometry not only of a flat plane but also of curved surfaces.
What makes a good axiom?
How should axioms be justified? By appeal to intuition, or sensory perception? Or are axioms legitimated merely indirectly, by their logical consequences? Plato and Aristotle disagreed, and later Newton disagreed even more. Their philosophies can be seen as rival interpretations of Euclid’s Elements.
Consequentia mirabilis: the dream of reduction to logic
Euclid’s Elements, read backwards, reduces complex truths to simpler ones, such as the Pythagorean Theorem to the parallelogram area theorem, and that in turn to triangle congruence. How far can this reductive process be taken, and what should be its ultimate goals? Some have advocated that the axiomatic-deductive program in mathematics is best seen in purely logical terms, but this perspective leaves some fundamental challenges unresolved.
Read Euclid backwards: history and purpose of Pythagorean Theorem
The Pythagorean Theorem might have been used in antiquity to build the pyramids, dig tunnels through mountains, and predict eclipse durations, it has been said. But maybe the main interest in the theorem was always more theoretical. Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorem is perhaps best thought of not as establishing the truth of the theorem but as breaking the truth of the theorem apart into its constituent parts to analyse what makes it tick. Euclid’s Elements as a whole can be read in this way, as a project of epistemological analysis.