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Annie Eby Monday, September 27, 2010

Mechanical v. Geometric Demonstrations

Archimedes’ Method, Proposition 1 v.
Archimedes: Quadrature of the Parabola, Proposition 24

Archimedes demonstrates in two ways that the segment of a parabola is 4/3 the

area of the triangle inscribed within; first, as a mechanical demonstration, which he

claims, in a letter to his friend, to be unsatisfactory as a proof; second, as a geometric

demonstration. He says that the proposition first became clear to him by mechanical

methods; the geometrical method came second, to provide an actual proof of the

proposition. Let us look at the mechanical demonstration (Prop 1 in Archimedes’

Method) and the geometric demonstration (Proposition 24 in Quadrature of the

Parabola). In examining these two proofs we hope to find a) the different methods

involved in geometric versus mechanical proofs; b) why Archimedes considers the

mechanical demonstration to be deficient as a proof; and c) why a mechanical

understanding occurs to Archimedes prior to a geometric understanding.

The geometric version of this proof is set forth in a Euclidean manner: a

supposition is made that the segment is equal to a certain area K, which fits the formula

we are trying to prove. For if the segment is not equal to area K, says Archimedes, it

must be greater or less than the area K. The proof then shows both of these options to be

absurd, thereby proving the supposition.

The mechanical demonstration sets up a series of proportions, relying on basic

geometric relations. Then Archimedes strays wildly from familiar geometry. The

departure from pure geometry consists mainly in Archimedes conception of a line.

Euclid defines a line as breadthless length. Archimedes, in order for his demonstration to

work, must contradict Euclid’s definition. Proposition 1 claims that lines can be situated

with their “centers of gravity” at a given point and that lines can be in equilibrium about a

certain point. But for a thing to have a center of gravity or to balance about a point, it

must have mass; in order for it to have mass, it must have breadth.

Later on in the proposition, Archimedes again depends on our visualization of a

line with breadth. Once we secure a proportion between an arbitrary line within the

triangle and a line within the segment, Archimedes tells us the relationship is the same for

the whole triangle and the whole segment since the triangle “is made up of all the parallel

lines” like the one in our proportion, and the segment “is made up of all the straight lines”

like the corresponding line in the proportion. Again, in order for a segment to be “made

up of” lines, those lines must have breadth.

It seems that a mechanical demonstration differs from a geometric proof insofar

as it strays from Euclidean principles and depends on truths of the physical world. The

mechanical demonstration also depends less on a progression of logical steps than on

one’s ability to visualize a line being dragged across the segment and watch, as if in

motion, the lines grow and shrink while always remaining in proportion.

Though the mechanical demonstration draws the same conclusions as the

geometric proof and is perhaps more intuitively understood, Archimedes ends his

proposition with a claim that the theorem has not been demonstrated; he only suspects it

to be true. In his assertion that he needs a purely geometric proof in order to show the

truth of the theorem, he seems to assume that truth can only be found in the realm of pure

geometry. Somehow, his use of physical phenomena (centers of gravity and points of

equilibrium) taint the mechanical proposition, corrupting the proposition’s authority.

If mechanical demonstrations are corrupted by the use of physical phenomena and

are not trustworthy as proofs, why is it the mechanical proposition which occurs to

Archimedes first? Why is the mechanical proposition easier to visualize than the purely

logical geometric proposition? The mechanical demonstration is more apprehensible

because it relates more closely with our experience. Any line we can imagine does have

breadth. It is therefore feasible to imagine one dragging a line to complete the area of a

segment. Any “line” we can create does have mass and a center of gravity. So it is

possible to imagine that lines could balance against one another. The geometric proof, in

contrast, depends on other propositions (Prop 23, in particular) which, though graspable

through demonstration, are not so easily intuited.

Archimedes presents the mechanical demonstration to his friend Eratosthenes

because he hopes it will help him get a start on his own investigations. Though

mechanical demonstrations might not be accepted as proof of a theorem, they allow one

to see through the use of the physical world if the theorem is likely true. The fact that

mechanical proofs use our experience of the physical world makes them more accessible

and easier to visualize, even as they stray from the Euclidean world of pure logic.