Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310-230 bce) used geometry to estimate the relativedistance of the sun from Earth and the radii of the moon and sun. His estimates wererough due to the difficulty of measuring very tiny differences between angles. Letting d= distance of the moon or sun from Earth and R = radius of Earth, moon, or sun, hereare his main results compared with reality:1. d
, but it is actually much bigger than the moon, being390d
. Again, this is a serious underestimate, the actual value being100 R
, a slight overestimate because the moon is really0.273R
In spite of the inaccuracies of these estimates, Aristarchus showed us how big the solarsystem is and that the sun is much bigger than Earth.Shortly after Aristarchus
s work, Eratosthenes (c. 276-194 bce) succeeded inmeasuring the size of Earth, so together with Aristarchus
s work, the ancient Greekshad a rough idea of how far away the moon and sun are. Aristarchus
s estimatesinvolve complicated geometry, but we can understand the conceptual basis ofEratosthenes
estimate of Earth
s radius from Figure 3.In Eratosthenes
time, the Greeks controlled Egypt and Alexandria was Egypt
smain city. Eratosthenes knew that on the first day of summer, when the sun is highestin the sky, the sun was directly overhead the Egyptian city of Syene, i.e., the sun
s rayscome down vertically so a stick held vertically in Syene would have no shadow. AtAlexandria, 800 km to the north, on the other hand, the sun
s rays come in 7 degrees tothe vertical so a stick held vertically does have a shadow. This is illustrated in Figure1.3, which illustrates how the length of the shadow depends on the radius. By workingthrough the geometrical relationship between the length of the stick shadow and thedistance between Alexandria and Syene, Eratosthenes was able to determine thediameter of Earth.
SunlightSun is directlyoverhead for thisperson on the equatorThis person doesn’t have tolook as high to see the sun
FIGURE 2: At the same time of day, a person farther north seesthe sun at a lower elevation than a person directly south.