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Geometry (Greek γεωμετρία; geo = earth, metria = measure) arose as the field of knowledge dealing with spatial relationships. It was one of the two fields of pre-modern mathematics, the other being the study of numbers. In modern times, geometric concepts have been generalized to a high level of abstraction and complexity, and have been subjected to the methods of calculus and abstract algebra, so that many modern branches of the field are barely recognizable as the descendants of early geometry. (See areas of mathematics and algebraic geometry.)


The earliest geometry

The earliest recorded beginnings of geometry may be traced to Ancient Egypt (see geometry in Egypt) and Ancient Babylon (see Babylonian mathematics) around 3000 B.C. Early geometry was a collection of empirically discovered principles concerning lengths, angles, areas, and volumes, which were developed to meet some practical need in surveying, construction, astronomy, and various crafts. Among these were some surprisingly sophisticated principles, and a modern mathematician might be hard put to derive some of them without the use of calculus. For example, both the Egyptians and the Babylonians were aware of versions of the Pythagorean theorem about 1500 years before Pythagoras; the Egyptians had a correct formula for the volume of a frustum of a square pyramid; the Babylonians had a trigonometry table.

Chinese culture at this same time period was equally advanced, so it is likely that they had an equally advanced mathematics, but no artifacts have survived from which we could learn about it. This may be partly due to their early use of paper, rather than clay tablets or stone, to record their achievements.

The Greek period (c. 600 B.C. – 600 A.D.)

The Greek Period must be considered in detail, since geometry, for most of its history, was what the Greeks made it. For the Ancient Greeks, geometry was the crown jewel of their sciences, reaching a completeness and perfection of methodology that no other branch of their knowledge had attained. They expanded the range of geometry to many new kinds of figures, curves, surfaces, and solids; they changed its methodology from trial-and-error to logical deduction; they recognized that geometry studies “eternal forms”, or abstractions, of which physical objects are only approximations; and they developed the idea of an “axiomatic theory”, which, for more than 2000 years, was regarded to be the ideal paradigm for all scientific theories.

Thales and Pythagoras

Thales (635-543 B.C.) of Ionia (now southwestern Turkey), was the first to whom deduction in mathematics is attributed. There are five geometric propositions for which he wrote deductive proofs, though his proofs have not survived. Pythagoras (582-496 B.C.) of Ionia, and later, Italy, then colonized by Greeks, may have been a student of Thales, and probably traveled to Babylon and Egypt. The theorem that bears his name was not his discovery, but he was the first to give a deductive proof of it. He gathered a group of students around him to study mathematics, music, and philosophy, and together they discovered most of what high school students learn today in their geometry courses. In addition, they made the profound discovery of incommensurable lengths and irrational numbers.


Plato (427-347 B.C.), the philosopher most esteemed by the Greeks, had inscribed above the entrance to his famous school, “Let none enter here who are ignorant of geometry.” Though he was not a mathematician himself, his views on mathematics had great influence. Mathematicians thus accepted his belief that geometry should use no tools but a compass and straight edge – never measuring instruments such as a marked ruler or a protractor, because these were a workman’s tools, not worthy of a scholar. This dictum led to a deep study of the possible ruler and compass constructions, and three classic ruler-and-compass problems: how to use these tools to trisect an angle, to construct a cube twice the volume of a given cube, and to construct a square equal in area to a given circle. The proofs of the impossibility of these constructions, finally achieved in the 19th century, led to important principles regarding the deep structure of the real number system. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), Plato’s greatest pupil, wrote a treatise on methods of reasoning used in deductive proofs (see Logic) which was not substantially improved upon until the 19th century.


Euclid (365?-275? B.C.), probably a student of one of Plato’s students, wrote a treatise in 13 books (chapters), titled The Elements of Geometry, in which he presented geometry in the ideal axiomatic form. The treatise is not a compendium of all that the Greeks knew at the time about geometry; Euclid himself wrote eight more advanced books on geometry. We know from other references that Euclid’s was not the first elementary geometry textbook, but it was so much superior that the others fell into disuse and were lost. He was brought to the university at Alexandria by Ptolemy I, King of Egypt.

The Elements began with definitions of terms, fundamental geometric principles (called axioms or postulates), and general quantitative principles (called common notions) from which all the rest of geometry could be logically deduced. Following are his five axioms, somewhat paraphrased to make the English easier to read.

  1. Any two points can be joined by a straight line.
  2. Any finite straight line can be extended in a straight line.
  3. A circle can be drawn with any center and any radius.
  4. All right angles are equal to each other.
  5. If two straight lines in a plane are crossed by another straight line (called the transversal), and the interior angles between the two lines and the transversal lying on one side of the transversal add up to less than two right angles, then on that side of the transversal, the two lines extended will intersect (also called the parallel postulate).

It was soon observed, and no doubt Euclid himself knew, that his fifth axiom could be replaced by the shorter statement “Given a line and a point not on the line, there is only one line through the given point and in the same plane with the given line that does not intersect the given line.” This is called Playfair’s Axiom, after the British teacher who proposed to make the replacement in all the school textbooks.

The axioms, according to Plato, should be simple and self-evident principles, so clearly true that they need no proof. Euclid’s first four axioms meet this criterion, but the fifth, even if replaced by Playfair’s Axiom, is not simple, and most would say not self-evident like the first four. The fifth resembled more the theorems that Euclid proved from the axioms. Furthermore, Euclid developed a substantial part of his theory of triangles without using the Fifth Axiom. The speculation arose, probably during Euclid’s lifetime, that the Fifth Axiom can and should be proved as a theorem from the first four, and thus is unnecessary as an axiom. Thus began many centuries of attempts to prove the Fifth Axiom, and the question was not settled until the 19th century.


Archimedes (287-212 B.C.), of Syracuse, Sicily, when it was a Greek city-state, was the greatest of the Greek mathematicians, and often named as one of the three greatest of all time (along with Isaac Newton and Carl Friedrich Gauss). Had he not been a mathematician, he would still be remembered as a great physicist, engineer, and inventor. In his mathematics, he developed methods very similar to the coordinate systems of analytic geometry, and the limiting process of integral calculus. The only element lacking for the creation of these fields was an efficient algebraic notation in which to express his concepts.

After Archimedes

After Archimedes, Greek mathematics began to decline. There were a few minor stars yet to come, but the golden age of geometry was over. Proclus (410-485), author of Commentary on the First Book of Euclid, was one of the last important players in Greek geometry. He was a competent geometer, but more importantly, he was a superb commentator on the works that preceded him. Much of that work did not survive to modern times, and is known to us only through his commentary. The Roman Republic and Empire that succeeded and absorbed the Greek city-states produced excellent engineers, but no mathematicians of note.

The Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation

The great library of Alexandria was burned. There is a growing consensus among historians that the Library of Alexandria likely suffered from several destructive events, but that the destruction of Alexandria's pagan temples in the late 4th century was probably the most severe and final one. The evidence for that destruction is the most definitive and secure. Caesar's invasion may well have led to the loss of some 40,000-70,000 scrolls in a warehouse adjacent to the port (as Luciano Canfora argues, they were likely copies produced by the Library intended for export), but it is unlikely to have affected the Library or Museum, given that there is ample evidence that both existed later.

Civil wars, decreasing investments in maintenance and acquisition of new scrolls and generally declining interest in non-religious pursuits likely contributed to a reduction in the body of material available in the Library, especially in the fourth century. The Serapeum was certainly destroyed by Theophilus in 391, and the Museum and Library may have fallen victim to the same campaign.

The Islamic ascendency in the Middle East, north Africa, and Spain began about 640 A.D. Original Arab mathematics during this period was primarily algebraic rather than geometric, though there were important commentaries on geometry. Omar Khayyám, for example, was a geometer as well as a poet. Scholarship in Europe declined until even the great works of antiquity were lost to them, and survived only in the Islamic centers of learning.

When Europe started to emerge from the intellectual darkness of the Middle Ages, the writers of Ancient Greece and Rome were rediscovered in Islamic libraries and translated from Arabic into Latin. Euclid’s Elements of Geometry was recovered, and the rigorous deductive methods of geometry were relearned. Development of geometry in the style of Euclid resumed, resulting in an abundance of new theorems and concepts, many of them very profound and elegant.

The 17th and early 18th centuries

In the early 17th century, there were two important developments in geometry. The first and most important was the creation of analytic geometry, or geometry with coordinates and equations, by Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665). This was a necessary precursor to the development of calculus and a precise quantitative science of physics. The second geometric development of this period was the systematic study of projective geometry by Girard Desargues (1591-1661). Projective geometry is the study of geometry without measurement, just the study of how points align with each other. There had been some early work in this area by Greek geometers, notably Pappus (c. 340). The greatest flowering of the field occurred with Jean-Victor Poncelet (1788-1867).

In the late 17th century, calculus was developed independently and almost simultaneously by Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716). This was the beginning of a new field of mathematics now called analysis. Though not itself a branch of geometry, it is applicable to geometry, and it solved two families of problems that had long been almost intractable: finding tangent lines to odd curves, and finding areas enclosed by those curves. The methods of calculus reduced these problems mostly to straightforward matters of computation.

The late 18th and 19th centuries

Non-Euclidean geometry

The old problem of proving Euclid’s Fifth Postulate, the "Parallel Postulate", from his first four postulates had never been forgotten. Beginning not long after Euclid, many attempted demonstrations were given, but all were later found to be faulty, through allowing into the reasoning some principle which itself had not been proved from the first four postulates. By 1700 a great deal had been discovered about what can be proved from the first four, and what the pitfalls were in attempting to prove the fifth. Saccheri, Lambert, and Legendre each did excellent work on the problem in the 18th century, but still fell short of success. In the early 19th century, Gauss, Johann Bolyai, and Lobatchewsky, each independently, took a different approach. Beginning to suspect that it was impossible to prove the Parallel Postulate, they set out to develop a self-consistent geometry in which that postulate was false. In this they were successful, thus creating the first non-Euclidean geometry. By 1854, Bernhard Riemann, a student of Gauss, had applied methods of calculus in a ground-breaking study of the intrinsic (self-contained) geometry of all smooth surfaces, and thereby found a different non-Euclidean geometry. This work of Riemann later became fundamental for Einstein's theory of relativity.

It remained to prove mathematically that the non-Euclidean geometry was just as self-consistent as Euclidean geometry, and this was first accomplished by Beltrami in 1868. With this, non-Euclidean geometry was established on an equal mathematical footing with Euclidean geometry.

While it was now known that different geometric theories were mathematically possible, the question remained, "Which one of these theories is correct for our physical space?" The mathematical work revealed that this question must be answered by physical experimentation, not mathematical reasoning, and uncovered the reason why the experimentation must involve immense (interstellar, not earth-bound) distances. With the development of relativity theory in physics, this question became vastly more complicated.

Introduction of mathematical rigor

All the work related to the Parallel Postulate revealed that it was quite difficult for a geometer to separate his logical reasoning from his intuitive understanding of physical space, and, moreover, revealed the critical importance of doing so. Careful examination had uncovered some logical inadequacies in Euclid's reasoning, and some unstated geometric principles to which Euclid sometimes appealed. This critique paralleled the crisis occurring in calculus and analysis regarding the meaning of infinite processes such as convergence and continuity. In geometry, there was a clear need for a new set of axioms, which would be complete, and which in no way relied on pictures we draw or on our intuition of space. Such axioms were given by David Hilbert in 1894 in his dissertation Grundlagen der Geometrie (Foundations of Geometry). Some other complete sets of axioms had been given a few years earlier, but did not match Hilbert's in economy, elegance, and similarity to Euclid's axioms.

Analysis situs, or topology

In the mid-18th century, it became apparent that certain progressions of mathematical reasoning recurred when similar ideas were studied on the number line, in two dimensions, and in three dimensions. Thus the general concept of a metric space was created so that the reasoning could be done in more generality, and then applied to special cases. This method of studying calculus- and analysis-related concepts came to be known as analysis situs, and later as topology. The important topics in this field were properties of more general figures, such as connectedness and boundaries, rather than properties like straightness, and precise equality of length and angle measurements, which had been the focus of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry. Topology soon became a separate field of major importance, rather than a sub-field of geometry or analysis.

The 20th century

See also

External links

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