“He was the director of the great library of Alexandria, where one day he read in a papyrus book that in the southern frontier outpost of Syene, near the first cataract of the Nile, at noon, on June 21 vertical sicks cast no shadows. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, as the hours crept toward midday, the shadows of temple columns grew shorter. At noon, they were gone. A reflection of the Sun could then be seen in the water at the bottom of a deep well. The Sun was directly overhead.

It was an observation that someone else might easily have ignored. Sticks, shadows, reflections in wells, the position of the Sun-of what possible importance could such simple everyday matters be? But Eratosthenes was a scientist, and his musings on these commonplaces changed the world; in a way, they made the world. Eratosthenes had the presence of mind to do an experiment, actually to observe whether in Alexandria vertical sicks cast shadows near noon on June 21. And, he discovered sticks do.

Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow an a stick in Alexandria, far to the north, could cast a pronounced shadow. Consider a map of the ancient Egypt with two vertical sticks of equal length, one stuck in Alexandria, the other in Syene. Suppose that , a a certain moment, each stick casts no shadow at all. This is perfectly easy to understand-provided the Earth is flat. The Sun would then be directly overhead. I the tow sicks cast shadows of equal length, that also would make sense on a flat Earth: the Sun’s ray would then be inclined a the same angle to the two sticks. But how could it be that at the same instant there as no shadow at Syene and a substantial shadow at Alexandria?The only possible answer, he saw, was that the surface of the Earth is curved. Not only that: the greater the curvature, the greater the difference in the shadow lengths. The Sun is so far away that its rays are parallel when they reach the Earth. Sticks placed at different angles so the Sun’s rays cast shadows of different lengths. For the observed difference in the shadow lengths, the distance between Alexandria and Syene had to be about seven degrees along the surface of the Earth: that is, if you imagine the sticks extending down to the center of the Earth, the would there intersect at an angle of seven degrees. Seven degrees is something like one-fiftieth of three hundred and sixty degrees, the full circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes knew that the distance between Alexandria an Syene was approximately 800 kilometers, because he hired a man to pace it out. Eight hundred kilometers times 50 is 40,000 kilometers: so that must be the circumference of the Earth.

This is the right answer. Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet and brains, plus a taste for experiment. With them he deduced the circumference of the Earth with and error of only a few percent, a remarkable achievement for 2,200 years ago. He was the first person accurately to measure the size of a a planet.

The calculation:

From the shadow lenght in Alexandria, the angle A can be measured. But from simple geometry (“if two parallel straight lines are transected by a third line, the alternate interior angles are equal”), angle B equals angle A. So by measuring the shadow lenght in Alexandria, Eratosthenes concluded that Syene was A=B =7grades away on the circumference of the Earth.

This is was for me one of the most memorable paragraphs in the Carl Sagan book which I read about 20 years ago. There is an appeal to it that is moving: the elegance of an inquisitive mind unveiling the reality, battling the unknown domains with impeccable reasoning.

What has this to do with emacs, unix and the gnu tools I blog about while making my way through them? May be something in line with the appreciation of first class outcomes, stuff which is enduring through the beauty of its rare simplicity and cleverness.