Aristarco

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Aristarco

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angle; angle SEM can be measured by observation; therefore

it is possible to deduce angle MSE and to determine the ratio

of the distance of the moon to the distance of the sun (Figure

1). Two obvious difficulties are involved in his procedures: the

determination with any exactitude (1) of the time of the

moon’s dichotomy and (2) of the measurement of angle SEM.

A slight inaccuracy in either case would lead to a grossly

inaccurate result. Aristarchus assumes angle SEM to be 87°,

when in actuality it is more than 89° 50’, and he derives a

distance for the sun of 18 to 20 times greater than the moon’s

distance (actually nearly 400 times greater). His mathematical

procedures are sound, but his observational data are so

crude as to make it apparent that Aristarchus was interested

here in mathematical demonstrations and not in physical

realities.

(1) That the moon receives its light from the sun.

(2) That the earth has the relation of a point and center to the

sphere of the moon.

At the half the great circle dividing the light and dark portions

of the moon is in line with the observer’s eye.

distance from the sun is less than a quadrant by 1/30 part of a

quadrant (87°).

that of two moons.

(6) That the moon subtends 1/15 part of a sign of the zodiac

(2°).

propositions:

eighteen times but less than twenty times the moon’s

distance (from the earth); this is based on the assumption

about the halved moon.

(2) The diameter of the sun has the same ratio to the

diameter of the moon (i.e., assuming that the sun and moon

have the same apparent angular diameter).

ratio greater than 19:3, but less than 43:6; this deduction

follows from the ratio between the distances thus discovered,

from the assumption about the shadow, and from the

assumption that the moon subtends 1/15 part of a sign of the

zodiac.

demonstrations. Heath has edited and translated the

complete Greek text, together with Pappus’ comments on the

treatise, in his Aristarchus of Samos (pp.352–414), and

presents a summary account of the treatise in A History of

Greek Mathematics(Vol. II).

Aristarchus was the first to develop geometric procedures for

approximating the sines of small angles. He deals with angles

expressed as fractions of right angles and ratios of the sides

of triangles, determining limits between which actual values

lie. In Proposition 7, demonstrating that the distance of the

sun is more than eighteen times but less than twenty times

the distance of the moon, which would be expressed

trigonometrically 1/18 > sin 3° > 1/20, he uses in his proof

certain inequalities that he assumes to be known and

accepted. These may be expressed trigonometrically.

If α and β are acute angles and α > β, then

angle SEM—89 5/6° instead of 87°—his result would have

been nearly correct. A century later Hipparchus was able to

obtain a very close approximation of the moon’s distance,

expressed in terms of earth radii, by measuring the earth’s

shadow during lunar eclipses; but an appreciation of the vast

distance of the sun had to wait upon the development of

modern precision instruments.

them grossly underestimated because of his poor

observational data, are:

(Prop. 10) The sun has to the moon a ratio greater than

5,832: I but less than 8,000: 1.

(Prop. 11) The diameter of the moon is less than 2/45 but

greater than 1/30 of the distance of the centre of the moon

from the observre.

(Prop. 16) The sun has to the earth a ratio greater than

6,859:27 but less than 79,507:216.

moon in a ratio greater than 108:43 but less than 60:19.

1,259,712: 79,507 but less than 216,000:6,859.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Thomas W. Africa, “Copernicus’ Relation to Aristarchus and

Pythagoras,” in Isis, 52 (1961), 403–409; Angus

Armitage, Copernicus, the Founder of Modern

Astronomy (London, 1938); John L. E. Dreyer, A History of

the Planetary Systems from Thales to Kepler (Cambridge,

England, 1906; repr., New York, 1953); Pierre Duhem, Le

système du monde, Vols. I-II (Paris, 1954); Sir Thomas

Heath, Aristarchus of Samos (Oxford, 1913) and A History of

Greek Mathematics, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1921); Otto Neugebauer,

“Archimedes and Aristarchus,” in Isis. 39 (1942), 4–6;

Giovanni V. Schiaparelli, “Origine del sistema planetario

eliocentrico presso i Greci,” in Memorie del’Istituto lombardodi

scienze e lettere, 18 (1898), asc. 5; and William H. Stahl,

“The Greek Heliocentric Theory and Its Abandonment.”

in Transactions of the Amerrican Philological

Association, 77 (1945), 321–332.

William H. Stahl

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