Tag Archives: math history

Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s Laws

Years ago (1963) I got the paperback The Calculus:A Genetic Approach, by Otto Toeplitz, which presented the basic ideas of the differential and integral calculus from a historical point of view. One thing Toeplitz did at the end of his book that I had not seen in other texts was to show the equivalence of Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s Law of Gravity. (Since 1963 David Bressoud has developed this theme in his excellent 1991 text.) I thought I would try to emulate Toeplitz’s approach with more modern notation (vectors) and arguments in hopes of extracting the essential ideas from the clutter.

A by-product of this effort was to reveal strongly the different paths that physics and mathematics follow in understanding physical reality.  The mystery is that the mathematics ends up describing the physics so well.  I will return to this theme a number of times in other posts.  See Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s Laws.

Vitruvian Man Problem

This is a mildly pointless 2015 article about Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man spread-eagled and inscribed in a circle and a square. I started wondering about the positions and whether they over-determined the circle and square. What hidden constraints were being assumed? One assumption turned out to be famous, namely, that the height of a man equaled the distance between his finger tips when he holds his arms straight out to either side of his body. I had been told this in childhood, and I never knew where it came from. Also, I don’t think it is true in every case (what about women?), though it does appear to be close (and is true in my case). See the Vitruvian Man Problem.

Degree of Latitude

This 2011 article gives some thoughts I had after reading Michael Dirda’s review in the Washington Post of Larrie D. Ferreiro’s Measure of the Earth. The book described the 1735 Geodesic Mission, whose purpose was to resolve the question of the shape of the earth, that is, whether it was a sphere, or like an egg with the poles further from the center than the equator, or like an oblate spheroid with the equator further from the center than the poles, as Newton averred due to centrifugal force. In the review Dirda said, “A team, sympathetic to Newton’s view, would travel to what is now Ecuador and measure the exact length of a degree of latitude near the equator. This would then be compared with the same measurement taken in France. If the latter was larger, Newton was right.” I wondered at first if Dirda got it right. It turned out my confusion stemmed from a mistaken definition of a degree of latitude. See Degree of Latitude.

Point Set Topology

Probably the most satisfying article I have put together is a recent one on point set topology. An old friend of mine, who studied math and physics in college but ended up getting a doctorate in English, asked me, what was topology? Knowing that there were two main branches of topology (general or point set topology and algebraic topology), I chose to describe point set topology first, especially since it was what I was most familiar with and had worked with most in my graduate work.

The essay turned out to have a surprising structure more like a musical theme and variations. The theme was the geometric series. I found it to be a wonderful medium to show the evolution of ideas (acting as variations) from the early Greeks (Zeno’s Paradoxes) through the development of calculus, decimal expansions of real numbers, to power series, metric spaces, and finally general topologies.

There was an additional benefit to this series of transformations of an initial idea: one of the major aspects of true mathematics became evident, namely, the extension of an idea into new territories that reveal unexpected connections to other forms of mathematics. Treating complicated functions as points in a topological space was a wonderful idea developed over the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and became the basis of the field of functional analysis. See Point Set Topology.