I’m going to start with a Greek by the name of Eratosthens who was an astronomer, athlete, geographer, mathematician, music theorist, and poet. Eratosthens figured out more than 200 years before Christ was born what the circumference of the earth was. Let this sink in for a moment; how in the world could he have done something like this that far back in time?
First of all Eratosthens believed that Aristotle was right that the world was round. It was also agreed upon by then that something perfectly round would be best measured by assigning it 360 degrees. This proved especially handy when ships began using magnetic compasses back in the 1400’s. I’m going to condense this story a little bit since my goal is to show how brilliant and yet simple Eratosthens’ approach was to solving this problem.
He used a reference point from a city that was 400 miles away and marked the exact time when the sun was overhead and didn’t produce a shadow on the object below. At the same time he used a stick at his end and upon the very same time mark, he measured the shadow from the stick and it was 7.2 degrees. So the sun was directly overhead 400 miles away but not so where he was.
At his point he knew that 7.2 degrees related to 400 miles because of where the other measurement was taken. All he had to do at this point was divide the earth’s circumference which was 360 degrees by the 7.2 degrees and then multiply it by 400 miles. This equated to 36,360 kilometers which was later figured out to be around 2% off. How simple yet brilliant. He had to come up with some kind of unit of measure or he’d never have an equation. Once he figured out how many degrees were in 400 miles, he had everything he needed to solve the problem.
This is a great example of how we sometimes make things complicated when the answer to even some of the most complex problems could be right in front of us.