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Name: doug buckwald
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Question:
My students would like to know how the Greeks first calculated an accurate numerical value for pi. Thanks!



Replies:
They probably sent an e-mail to Cairo and asked an Egyptian. All of your questions are answered in a nifty little book called "A History of Pi" by Petr Beckmann (St. Martin's Press 1971-it may have been reprinted by Dover).

jlu


That's a great book, if you can find it. Most books on the history of mathematics discuss early measurements of pi along with the beginnings of geometry. The ancient Greeks may have gotten some of their math from Babylon but probably not from Egypt: "...the Egyptians' efforts toward geometry are mostly trivial and disappointing." (ref. 1, p. 43) and "So far as is known, nobody before the ancient Greek mathematicians ever "took pi equal to" anything." (ref. 1, p. 46) As for how they did it, I imagine they used a piece of twine to draw a circle of constant radius about some point, then more twine to measure the circumference of that circle. When they checked a few circles with differing radii, they would have discovered that the ratio of circumference to radius was constant. references: 1. The Development of Mathematics, E. T. Bell, McGraw-Hill, 1945

hawley


I think that later research gives a more favorable view of Egyptian math. I found Richard J. Gillings, "Mathematics in the Time of the Pharaohs" quite fascinating. The Egyptian value for pi was 256/81, which isn't all that bad.

jlu



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