Archive for June, 2021

Seeing beyond the Horizon

From a hilltop, the horizon lies below the horizontal level at an angle called the “dip”. Around AD 1020, the brilliant Persian scholar al-Biruni used a measurement of the dip, from a mountain of known height, to get an accurate estimate of the size of the Earth. It is claimed that his estimate was within 1% of the true value but, since he was not aware of atmospheric refraction and made no allowance for it, this high precision must have been fortuitous  [TM213 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Snowdonia photographed from the Ben of Howth, 12 January 2021. Photo: Niall O’Carroll (Instagram).

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Al Biruni and the Size of the Earth

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (AD 973–1048)

Al Biruni at Persian Scholars Pavilion in Vienna.

The 11th century Persian mathematician Abu Rayhan al-Biruni used simple trigonometric results to estimate the radius and circumference of the Earth. His estimate has been quoted as 6,340 km, which is within 1% of the mean radius of 6,371 km. While al-Biruni’s method was brilliant and, for its era, spectacular, the accuracy claimed must be regarded with suspicion.

Al-Biruni assumed that the Earth is a perfect sphere of (unknown) radius {a}. He realised that because of the Earth’s curvature the horizon, as viewed from a mountain-top, would appear to be below the horizontal direction. This direction is easily obtained as being orthogonal to the vertical, which is indicated by a plumb line.

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The Simple Arithmetic Triangle is full of Surprises

Pascal’s triangle is one of the most famous of all mathematical diagrams, simple to construct and yet rich in mathematical patterns. These can be found by a web search, but their discovery by study of the diagram is vastly more satisfying, and there is always a chance of finding something never seen before  [TM212 or search for “thatsmaths” at irishtimes.com].

Pascal’s triangle as found in Zhu Shiji’s treatise The Precious Mirror of the Four Elements (1303).

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