I often find it amazing that people long ago, made many discoveries that we would find difficult without today’s equipment and computing power. If asked “how long ago was the size of Earth accurately determined?”, what would you guess? Somewhere between 1500 CE and today? What about between 500 CE and today? It turns out that calculation was made almost 2300 years ago, around 245 BCE.
Eratosthenes was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, poet, and music theorist. He was born in 276 BCE and died in 194 BCE. He noticed that in Syene (now Aswan Egypt), that a well with vertical sides did not cast any shadow midday at the summer solstice (when the sun is at its highest point in the sky as the earth revolves about the sun). However, in Alexandria, a vertical pole stuck into the ground, cast a shadow at the same time of the day and year. This happens because the earth is spherical and the direction of the sun at different latitudes is different.
So Eratosthenes measured the length of the pole above the ground in Alexandria and the length of the shadow. How can we use these measurements?
First let’s measure the angle the shadow in Alexandria makes with the stick. To get the same answer as Eratosthenes, I will assume the height of the stick above the ground in Alexandria was 1 meter and the length of the shadow was 12.63 centimeters:
From trigonometry, the tangent of the angle 𝜃, is the opposite side divided by the adjacent side. So if we use the inverse tangent on 0.1263m/1m (the angle whose tangent is 0.1263), we get 𝜃 = 7.2°. What does this angle have anything to do with the earth? Quite a lot actually.
Now let’s draw the earth underneath the stick:
As the sun is very far away, we can approximate the rays from the sun as being parallel at any spot on earth, so the line between the center of the earth and the well in Syrene is parallel to the edge of the stick’s shadow in Alexandria. This means that the angle between the stick and the well at the earth’s center is the same, 7.2°.
Now there are 360° to span the entire circumference of the earth, so the curved distance between Alexandria and Syrene divided by the earth’s circumference will be the same as 7.2°/360° = 0.02. But what is that curved distance.
Evidently, there were people called “bematists” who were trained to measure large distances by counting their steps. Well Eratosthenes employed them to measure the distance between Alexandria and Syrene. Looking at the map, the Nile River gets in the way of this at several places, but I’ll assume they found a way to handle this.
Converting their units to meters, they measured the distance to be 800 kilometers. So 800/(earth’s circumference) = 0.02, which means that earth’s circumference = 40,000 km.
This is a very accurate estimate of the earth’s circumference. As the earth is not a perfect sphere, the circumference measured around the poles is 40,008 km using satellite data and all sorts of equipment and calculation power not available to Eratosthenes. The circumference around the equator is 40,075 km.
Using the formula for the circumference of a circle, we can also get an estimate of the earth’s diameter: C = 𝜋d ⟹ d = 40000/𝜋 = 12,732 km compared to the technology derived value of 12,714 km.
I am impressed!