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Geometry And Topology

The Britannica guide to geometry by William L. Hosch

By William L. Hosch

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The scheme of Brunelleschi and Alberti, as given without proofs in Alberti’s De pictura (1435; On Painting), 41 7 The Britannica Guide to Geometry 7 exploits the pyramid of rays that, according to what they had learned from the Westernized versions of the optics of Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965–1040), proceeds from the object to the painter’s eye. Imagine, as Alberti directed, that the painter studies a scene through a window, using only one eye and not moving his head. He cannot know whether he looks at an external scene or at a glass painted to present to his eye the same visual pyramid.

Alberti’s procedure, as developed by Piero della Francesca (c. 1410–92) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), was used by many artists who wished to render perspective persuasively. At the same time, cartographers tried various projections of the sphere to accommodate the record of geographical discoveries that began in the mid-15th century with Portuguese exploration of the west coast of Africa. Coincidentally with these explorations, mapmakers recovered Ptolemy’s Geography, in which he had recorded by latitude (sometimes near enough) and longitude (usually far off) the principal places known to him and indicated how they could be projected onto a map.

The inspired geometer was Isaac Newton (1642 [Old Style]– 1727), who made planetary dynamics a matter entirely of geometry by replacing the planetary orbit by a succession of infinitesimal chords, planetary acceleration by a series of centripetal jerks, and, in keeping with Kepler’s second law, time by an area. Besides the problem of planetary motion, questions in optics pushed 17th-century natural philosophers and 49 7 The Britannica Guide to Geometry 7 mathematicians to the study of conic sections.

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