Search Loci: Convergence:
God not only plays dice. He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen.
Nature, 1975, p. 257.
The Sagacity of Circles: A History of the Isoperimetric Problem
The Isoperimetric Problem in Literature
Although the isoperimetric problem is primarily mathematical in nature, it is unique in that poets and historians of both the ancient and medieval world incorporated it into their works. Most famously, Virgil made use of the concept in his Roman epic The Aeneid, written in the first century B.C.E. In Book I of The Aeneid, Queen Dido flees her murderous brother Pygmalion to the shores of North Africa where she founds the city of Carthage. Virgil notes:
“They sailed to the place where today you’ll see
Stone walls going higher and the citadel
Of Carthage, the new town. They bought the land,
Called Drumskin [Byrsa] from the bargain made, a tract
They could enclose with one bull’s hide” (Book I, 16).
[Click here for a view of ancient Carthage.]
According to legend, Dido made the hide given to her by the natives of Carthage into a long rope and, using the coast as part of her boundary, enclosed her lands in a semi-circle, thus using the fact that it was this shape which contains the greatest area [Nahin, 45]. It is from Virgil’s tale that mathematicians give the name “Dido’s Problem” to the isoperimetric problem. An earlier account of Carthaginian folklore compiled in the 3rd century C.E. by the Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus gives a more descriptive account of the legendary founding of Carthage by Dido, called Elissa by the Greeks:
[For classroom activities involving Dido and bees (see pages 1 and 6), click here. The lessons are from the CD entitled Historical Modules for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics, published by the MAA.]
Much later, the isoperimetric problem appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniæ (History of the Kings of England), an early account of the Arthurian legends written in the 12th century C.E. In this tale, a German duke by the name of Hengist appeals to King Vortigern for land in return for military service:
The isoperimetric problem, therefore, held a particular appeal to not only the figures of the mythological past, but to the poets and historians who wrote of their deeds.
Be the first to start a discussion about this article.