Third Century BCE – Alexandria, Egypt
‘At noon on the day of the summer solstice, the Sun is directly overhead in Syene (now Aswan) and there is no shadow, but at the same time in Alexandria the Sun is at an angle and there is a measurable shadow’
Eratosthenes used this concept to calculate the circumference of the Earth.
In 230 BCE, the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes worked out the circumference of the Earth to be 25,000 miles (40,000 km) by studying shadows cast by the Sun in both Alexandria and Syene on the day of the summer solstice. Eratosthenes knew from his predecessors that at noon on the longest day of the year (the summer solstice), the Sun would be directly overhead at Syene when a vertical post would cast no shadow, whereas a post in Alexandria 800 kilometers to the north would have a measurable shadow.
Eratosthenes reasoned that the surface of the Earth was curved, resulting in the Sun’s rays being different in different locations. With the aid of simple geometrical instruments he found that in Alexandria at noon the Sun’s rays were falling at an angle of 7.2 degrees, which is one fiftieth of 360 degrees. Having determined the difference in the angles between the axes of the two posts, these axes, if extrapolated downwards would meet at the centre of a spherical Earth. Knowing the distance between the two places, he calculated that the circumference of the Earth was fifty times that distance.
As 7 degrees is approximately one-fiftieth of a circle, multiplying the 800 km distance between the posts by 50 gives a circumference for the Earth of 40,000 km and dividing by pi gives a diameter of 12,800 km.
Eratosthenes’ value comes to 39,350 kilometres, compared to a true average length of 40,033 kilometres.
Eratosthenes was a scholar, an astronomer, mathematician, geographer, historian, literary critic and poet. He was nicknamed ‘Beta’ (the second letter of the Greek alphabet) because he was considered the second best at everything.