Earth's Circumference

Earth's Circumference

2200 years ago, Eratosthenes estimated the Earth's circumference using math, without ever leaving Egypt. He was remarkably accurate.

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More than 2,000 years ago Eratosthenes compared the position of the Sun's rays in two locations to calculate the spherical size of the Earth with reasonable accuracy.

Eratosthenes was born in the Greek colony Cyrene, now the city of Shahhat, Libya. As a young man, he traveled to Athens to pursue his studies. He returned to Cyrene and made such a name for himself in scholarly endeavors that the Greek ruler of Egypt brought him to Alexandria to tutor his son. When the chief librarian of the famous Library of Alexandria died in 236 BCE, Eratosthenes was appointed to the prominent position around the age of 40.

A man of many talents, Eratosthenes was a librarian, geographer, mathematician, astronomer, historian, and poet. His friends at the library nicknamed him Pentathlos, or athlete who competes in five different events. The name seemed to fit a scholar who excelled in many fields of study. Most of Eratosthenes's writings have been lost, but other scholars reported his work and findings — which were extensive.

Eratosthenes may have been the first to use the word geography. He invented a system of longitude and latitude and made a map of the known world. He also designed a system for finding prime numbers — whole numbers that can only be divided by themselves or by the number 1. This method, still in use today, is called the "Sieve of Eratosthenes"

Eratosthenes was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth's axis, which he figured with remarkable accuracy; the finding was reported by Ptolemy (85-165 CE). Eratosthenes also calculated the distance from the Earth to the Moon and the Sun, but with less accuracy. He made a catalog of 675 stars. He made a calendar with leap years and laid the foundation of chronology in the Western world by organizing the dates of literary and political events from the siege of Troy (about 1194–1184 BCE) to his own time.

Yet his most lasting achievement was his remarkably accurate calculation of the Earth's circumference (the distance around a circle or sphere). He computed this by using simple geometry and trigonometry and by recognizing Earth as a sphere in space. Most Greek scholars by the time of Aristotle (384–322 BCE) agreed that Earth was a sphere, but none knew how big it was.

How did Greek scholars know the Earth was a sphere? They observed that ships disappeared over the horizon while their masts were still visible. They saw the curved shadow of the Earth on the Moon during lunar eclipses. And they noticed the changing positions of the stars in the sky.


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