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How do you measure the size of the planet you’re standing on?
“Circumference" is the story of what happened when one man asked himself that very question. Nicholas Nicastro brings to life one of history's greatest experiments when an ancient Greek named Eratosthenes first accurately determined the distance around the spherical earth. In this fascinating narrative history, Nicastro takes a look at a deceptively simple but stunning achievement made by one man, millennia ago, with only the simplest of materials at his disposal. How was he able to measure the land at a time when distance was more a matter of a shrug and a guess at the time spent on a donkey’s back? How could he be so confident in the assumptions that underlay his calculations: that the earth was round and the sun so far away that its rays struck the ground in parallel lines? Was it luck or pure scientific genius? Nicastro brings readers on a trip into a long-vanished world that prefigured modernity in many ways, where neither Eratosthenes' reputation, nor the validity of his method, nor his leadership of the Great Library of Alexandria were enough to convince all his contemporaries about the dimensions of the earth. Eratosthenes' results were debated for centuries until he was ultimately vindicated almost 2000 years later, during the great voyages of exploration. “Circumference” is a compelling scientific detective story that transports readers back to a time when humans had no idea how big their world was--and the fate of a man who dared to measure the incomprehensible.
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NICHOLAS NICASTRO PhD has taught history, anthropology, and psychology at Cornell University and Hobart-William Smith Colleges. He has written five novels as well as short fiction, travel and science articles for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Film Comment, and The International Herald Tribune, Archaeology, and more. He now lives in northern California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1. THE PHILOSOPHER RUNIN 245 BCE, Eratosthenes of Cyrene left Athens to take up his position as head librarian at the Museum in Alexandria. Though long-distance travel in antiquity was never a trivial undertaking, a summer voyage to Egypt would have been a pleasant journey. Eratosthenes would no doubt have first made inquiries at Athens' port of Piraeus for passage aboard a freighter. In his time, there was no specialized passenger trade spanning the Aegean: a traveler would simply go down to the waterfront, or perhaps the storefront offices of a reputable shipping company, and ask for passage on a vessel heading toward his destination. For obscure places or sailings out of season, he had to make do with passage to someplace near his destination and complete his journey aboard smaller coastal craft or overland. But in the case of the Athens-Alexandria run, he would have had little trouble finding passage; the route in the mid-third century BCE would have been well plied, with frequent direct sailings by shippers making a good profit.Vessels leaving Alexandria were weighted down with the wares of the greatest entrepôt in the Mediterranean world: grain and papyrus from the Egyptian countryside; wine from the vineyards around Lake Mareotis; textiles, glass, goldwork, faience, papyrus, unguents, and perfumes from the city's factories; spices, incense, aromatic woods, and other luxuries from Arabia and points east. Athens herself by the mid-third century had already been supplanted by Rhodes as the leading mercantile democracy in theAegean. Because Athenian bulk exports to Egypt would have been far more limited than her imports, Alexandrian cargo ships would come home far higher in the water than when they set out. Indeed, Athens' most important exports to Ptolemy's kingdom would not have been her signature products, such as wine, honey, and olive oil, or even books for the Great Library, but intellectuals like Eratosthenes himself.Ships of the time were small by modern standards: the only Hellenistic-era merchant vessel known to archaeology, the so-called Kyrenia ship discovered off the north coast of Cyprus in 1967, was a four-man island hopper that measured only forty-seven feet long and fifteen wide. Dwarfing that would have been the big grain ships that plied the Egypt-Italy route in Roman times, such as the 180-foot-long, 44-foot-wide Isis described by Lucian of Samosata in the second century CE. But such leviathans appeared only late in antiquity, and were exceptional. Most likely Eratosthenes would have booked passage on something far more modest.The right price bought space on deck to lay a bedroll or perhaps pitch a small tent. Cabins, which were few, expensive, and undoubtedly cramped, were more suited to the wives and daughters of the wealthy, who needed privacy away from the crew and the other passengers, almost all of whom were male. (This, notwithstanding the effect on milady's stomach: an ancient merchantman with its round bottom and small sails--the Kyrenia ship had only about sixty-four square meters of canvas--would have pitched and rolled terribly. This effect would have seemed far worse to those confined onboard in a tiny cubicle.)To a man in his prime such as Eratosthenes, there would have been no reason to avoid spending his time under the open sky. Moderns can hardly imagine the contrast of breathing clean sea air after sampling the conditions in a typical ancient Greek city, with no internal plumbing, few allowances for public sanitation, and animals and theirwaste everywhere. Narrow streets cut city dwellers off from sky and sun; insecurity at night kept them indoors, away from the stars.But on a quiet sea, with lungs and nostrils unburdened, no responsibilities, and much time on his hands, the traveler with a philosophic bent could find his imagination enlarged. Presented with the night sky, Eratosthenes might have contemplated the cosmological speculations of Thales, Anaximander, Leucippus, and the Pythagoreans. He might have considered the popular theory that the Milky Way, which glowed so brightly at sea, was the remnant of a path through the sky abandoned by the sun. Or he might simply have been impressed with how little was truly known about what he saw above him.Passage to Africa during the fair-sailing season--roughly, May to October--would have put the seasonal winds behind the ship's sails. After a few days afloat, a different sort of star would have appeared near the southern horizon: a steady gleam that would shine day and night, never setting but rising subtly as the vessel neared shore. At the sight of it most of those aboard would have begun their obeisances to the gods who had secured their safe passage. The beacon of the Lighthouse of Alexandria was, after all, the passengers' first direct glimpse of their destination.TOWER OF SIGNIFICANCEThere is an island washed by the open sea lying off the Nile mouth--seamen call it Pharos-- distant a day's sail in a clean hull with a brisk land breeze behind. It has a harbor, a sheltered bay, where shipmasters take on dark water for the outward voyage.
--The Odyssey, book IVThe Great Lighthouse (in Greek, Pharos) was for centuries one of the tallest human-made structures on earth. Based on contemporary illustrations and descriptions of its remains, historians know that it was sited on a small natural island (also called Pharos) that was connected to the mainland by a mole (breakwater causeway) that, in turn, separated the east and west harbors of the city (see figure 1). Built of white limestone and pink Aswan granite, the Pharos had a tripartite structure based on a vaguely Pythagorean geometric theme, with a square-sided base, octagonal middle, and circular upper stage. At its very top was mounted a lantern that included a mirror for reflecting sunlight during the day, and for an oil-fed fire at night. At a height of 384 feet, its beacon would theoretically have been visible some thirty miles out to sea--more than a day's sail away. If the Pharos had somehow been plucked off the North African shore and placed on Lake Michigan, it would have topped the Chicago skyline until the construction of the Wrigley Building in 1922.Dedicated in the early third century at a cost of eight hundred talents, the Lighthouse was one of the first monumental structures completed after the city's founding. Its manifest purpose was to compensate for the lack of landmarks for navigating the northwest Egyptian coast, though its utility as a lookout (and, if legend is to be believed, for burning ships at a distance with its great mirror) would have been a useful bonus. As such it represented an innovation: while towers had been built elsewhere, and human-made landmarks, such as the gleaming bronze helmet of Athena Promachos on the Athenian Acropolis, had incidental uses in navigation, the Pharos was probably the first structure expressly designed for that purpose. There was nothing in mainland Greece to compare to it.It therefore comes as something of a surprise that the first known catalog of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, that ofAntipator of Sidon (c. second century BCE), did not include the Pharos. Instead, Antipater preferred to list the Walls of Babylon. It wasn't until the first century CE that the practically minded Romans, specifically Pliny the Elder, included the Lighthouse among the canonical seven (along with the Pyramids of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus). The Lighthouse was so well constructed, however, that it was among the last Wonders to vanish: Arab travelers describe at least part of the tower surviving well into the medieval period. The rest of the Pharos finally succumbed to earthquakes in the early fourteenth century CE. Underwater surveys of the area northeast of the island clearly show remnants of the tower toppled in that direction, with more than two thousand of its blocks littering the harbor bed.Yet, like many landmark structures in history, the Lighthouse towered as much in symbol as in physical height. It was a practical expression of the self-aggrandizing impulse that inspired other megastructures in the new Hellenistic kingdoms, such as the renovated Temple of Apollo at Didyma, or the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Like the buildup of super-tall skyscrapers along the Asian rim in our own time, architectural gigantism followed the accumulation of sufficient money and political confidence to make such gestures. Sure enough, the Pharos's visibility was fully exploited to advertise the splendor of the Ptolemaic state: much of what we know about its appearance is based on its representation on coins, lamps, and other souvenirs, where it was reproduced as frequently as the Statue of Liberty is today (see figure 2). More to the point, its ingenious design, which anticipated the setback designs of modern masonry skyscrapers by more than twenty centuries, might have represented the first practical fruit of research done at the institution Eratosthenes had come to join--the Museum.The beacon would have had another significant implication to an informed mind like Eratosthenes'. Its visibility from far out at sea, when the rest of the coast appeared to lie below the horizon, was as graphic a demonstration as possible of the curvature of the earth's surface. This would (or should) have ruled out competing models of the planet's shape, such as Thales' disk, Anaximander's flat-topped column, and Leucippus's kettledrum. One of the key assumptions of Eratosthenes' measurement of the earth's circumference--that the planet is spherical--would have been reinforced in his mind even before he set foot on Egyptian soil.INTO THE BIRDCAGEMany are feeding in populous Egypt, scribblers on papyrus, ceaselessly wrangling in the birdcage of the Muses.
--TIMON OF PHLIUS (c. 320-230)
The final approach to the city would have presented the ship's passengers with a panorama of Greek ingenuity. The city's Greek character deserves emphasis: though Alexandria was located in the enviably rich kingdom of Egypt, and Egypt had been respected for centuries (along with Babylonia) as the font of all ancient wisdom, there never seemed any prospect of constructing a capital that actually looked authentically Egyptian. The ambiguous relationship of the capital to the rest of the country was obvious even to outsiders: the Romans, who knew a thing or two about the geography of power, called it Alexandria ad Aegyptum, or "Alexandria near Egypt," not in it.To be sure, the Ptolemies did commission massive new temples in the ancient style, largely to help the Macedonian rulers ingratiate themselves with their native subjects. But those constructions stood upriver, at such places as Dendera, Edfu, and Philae. The Greeks had also plundered interior sites, such as Heliopolis, for sphinxes, obelisks, columns, and so on, with which to decorate their public spaces. These appear to have been spread about, out of context, like titanic bric-a-brac, in a manner that would have struck the natives as highly irreverent--Egyptianizing instead of Egyptian. (The twin seventy-foot "Cleopatra's Needles"--obelisks--were first installed in Alexandria just after the Ptolemaic period, and subsequently shipped to the West. They are now mounted on the Thames embankment and in Central Park in New York, largely for the same reasons the Ptolemies had for displaying them.)Strabo offers the best surviving description of the city in its heyday. Approaching from the north, Eratosthenes' ship would likely have made for the mouth of the eastern or Great Harbor, which was bound by Pharos Island on the west and on the east by the promontory of Lochias. The pilot would have had to proceed carefully around the rocks that either stuck their heads above the water or lay just below the surface--Strabo makes a point of mentioning the violence of the sea in the vicinity. As the ship entered protected waters and proceeded along one of three channels (nicknamed Steganos, Posideos, and Tauros) to the docks, Eratosthenes would have seen the Lighthouse towering over him on his right, clad in marble and graced with monumental statuary, the trident of the bronze Poseidon (or Zeus or Proteus) at its peak gleaming in the sun.Before him, the city's waterfront would have stretched in a crescent: starting from the east, where the Lochias peninsula (today, sunk below sea level) joins the mainland, he would have seen the royal compound--a sprawling complex of "various dwellings and groves" so sprawling that it "occup[ies] a fourth or even a thirdpart of [the city's] whole extent. For as each of the kings was desirous of adding some embellishment to the places dedicated to the public use, so, besides the buildings already existing, each of them erected a building at his own expense; hence the expression of the poet may be here applied, 'one after the other springs.'" Strabo notes that the buildings of the royal pleasure dome were "all connected with one another and with the harbor, and those also which are beyond it"--a scheme that Fraser likens to the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, but that also suggests the mazelike arrangement that Caesar would find so frustrating in his attempts to barricade himself in the palaces two hundred years later.Below the palaces would have lain the royal anchorage, and beyond that, the small island (since vanished) that in Strabo's time boasted "a palace and a small port" and was known somewhat grandiosely as Anti-Rhodes. Behind, on higher ground, stood a splendid theater, a compulsory feature in any Greek city, and to its west, the Emporion, a complex of docks and customshouses where every ship was inspected. Farther east was the Serapeion, a vast temple complex six hundred feet long and one hundred wide, dedicated to Alexandria's patron deity. Serapis was an amalgam of Apis, the native bull god, and Osiris, the anthropomorphic lord of the dead--an instant "designer god" fashioned by the Ptolemies to give Greeks and Egyptians a deity in common.The inspections at the Emporion had their pecuniary purpose, of course. Much of the state's revenue was derived not from direct taxation, but from duties placed on goods moving in and out of the port. But they had another mission: since the foundation of the Museum, the Ptolemies had a standing policy of confiscating any valuable books that arrived by ship in the town, copying them, and returning the copies to the owner. The originals were retained in a special section of the Great Library called "the ships' collection." In this and other ways the Ptolemies were able, in just a few decades, to amass thelargest collection of books in the Greek world. We can be sure, then, that if Eratosthenes brought any of his own books from Athens, they would have been thoroughly examined by the king's officials.The Great Harbor was deep enough for the biggest ships to come right up to the edge of the street grid. As the passengers waited for the royal inspectors to complete their work, we can imagine that Eratosthenes was close enough to hear the bustle of the merchants' quarter, and to smell the city's fragrant treasures--the half-fruity, half-balsamic complexity of frankincense, cinnamon's sweet bite, the tang of pepper.Cleared at least to proceed into the city, the visitor would soon encounter a spectacle of urban grandeur widely celebrated in its time. Achilles Tatius, a second-century CE native...
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