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Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe Hardcover – November 25, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (November 25, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312372477
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312372477
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,113,456 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Forget the myth of Columbus’ daring in imagining a round earth. Nicastro not only traces the conception of a spherical world back more than a millennium before the seafarer set sail but also recounts in fascinating detail how the ancient Greek geometer Eratosthenes measured that sphere with astonishing accuracy. Though it would be thousands of years before his feat received appropriate recognition, Eratosthenes conducted his revolutionary science with nothing more complex than a sundial and a compass. With reader-friendly clarity, Nicastro explains the surprisingly simple calculations behind the earth measurement. But readers learn about much more than geodesy: Nicastro delivers the deeply human story of a multitalented genius whose tenure as the head of Alexandria’s famed library occasioned remarkable achievements in literature, history, linguistics, and philosophy despite the political turmoil that periodically rocked the Ptolemaic world. Indeed, this polymath plays out his long career against a colorful backdrop peopled with a rich variety of conquerors and cosmologists, murderers and mathematicians. A distant yesterday still furnishes fascinating drama for readers today. --Bryce Christensen

Review

Forget the myth of Columbus' daring in imagining a round earth. Nicastro not only traces the conception of a spherical world back more than a millennium before the seafarer set sail but also recounts in fascinating detail how the ancient Greek geometer Eratosthenes measured that sphere with astonishing accuracy. Though it would be thousands of years before his feat received appropriate recognition, Eratosthenes conducted his revolutionary science with nothing more complex than a sundial and a compass. With reader-friendly clarity, Nicastro explains the surprisingly simple calculations behind the earth measurement. But readers learn about much more than geodesy: Nicastro delivers the deeply human story of a multitalented genius whose tenure as the head of Alexandria's famed library occasioned remarkable achievements in literature, history, linguistics, and philosophy despite the political turmoil that periodically rocked the Ptolemaic world. Indeed, this polymath plays out his long career against a colorful backdrop peopled with a rich variety of conquerors and cosmologists, murderers and mathematicians. A distant yesterday still furnishes fascinating drama for readers today."—Booklist
 
"Propelled by the story of Eratosthenes' solution of an ancient puzzle—'How big is the earth?'— Circumference offers many unexpected pleasures along the way.  With an amiable voice and a flowing style, Nicholas Nicastro brings historical places and people to vivid new life, from the shining city of Alexandria to the great conqueror for whom it was named.  A real treat for lovers of history and science."—Steven Strogatz, author of Sync, and Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, Cornell University

"Nick Nicastro's new book is an engaging look at one of the greatest and most neglected minds in antiquity.  The author has a gift for explaining complex ideas clearly and with an eye for the telling (and amusing) detail.  In breadth and style I am reminded more than anything else of James Burke's Connections."—Dr. David B. Hollander, Iowa State University

Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on January 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Despite its title and subtitle, there is much more in this book than a description of Eratosthenes's attempt to measure the earth's circumference. Roughly the first half of the book contains information on the ancient world as it existed at about the time that Eratosthenes lived. Topics discussed include: the origin and evolution of the city of Alexandria, the people who lived and worked there, the Museum and Library, other landmarks, the politics, the local kings, the thinkers of the period, etc. In the second half of the book, more technical details are presented on Eratosthenes' measurement of the earth's circumference, e.g., his methods, his results as given in the ancient unit "stade", detective work in converting the stade into modern miles, etc. Also discussed are attempts, over the centuries since Eratosthenes's time, to explore and map the globe and even circumnavigate it. The writing style is scholarly, often witty and generally quite engaging - the second half, in my opinion, is particularly gripping.

Unfortunately, there is an error on page 140, near the bottom. Here it is stated that "... the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere is the day when the earth's axis is perpendicular to the plane of its solar orbit". This is incorrect; the earth's axis is never perpendicular to the plane of its solar orbit (the ecliptic); it is currently at about 23.5 degrees off from being perpendicular to the ecliptic and this angle varies somewhat (oscillates) over long periods of time. The first day of spring (vernal equinox), is the day when solar rays hit the earth's surface perpendicular at the equator at local noon, i.e., the sun is directly overhead, as correctly stated in the sentence following the above quote.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Mitchell R. Alegre VINE VOICE on December 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
"Circumference" by Nicholas Nicastro is the story of how the ancient Greek scholar Eratosthenes was the first to accurately determine the earth's circumference. Nicastro admits in his preface that little is known about Eratosthenes, and that lack of knowledge is evident in the book. Most of the volume is a wide-ranging history of the Hellenistic period during which Eratosthenes lived. It is not until nearly halfway into the book that Nicastro begins a detailed exploration of Eratosthenes's efforts to determine the earth's girth. The author does have an accessible writing style. I found the last chapter the most interesting when Nicastro explains the consequences of Eratosthenes's work for Europe's sixteenth century explorers. "Circumference" is a quick and pleasant read that provides an easily understood history of ancient scholarship.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Darwin8u on January 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
A nice exploration of the history of one of mathematics more elusive thinkers. IN the spirit of Sobel's 'Longitude,' etc., Nicastro adeptly explores the times, the problem, and the solutions that guided Eratosthenes.

Anyone who loves the history of science and math will enjoy this book.
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23 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Steve on September 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I purchased this book after seeing it recommended in History magazine, and I was extremely disappointed with it. I was looking for a book that provided a clear chronological story of attempts to measure the globe. This book was not it. The author spends the first half of the book trying to write a biography of Eratosthenes, about whom almost nothing is known. He therefore pads the book by describing his own trip to Egypt and spends pages conjecturing about boring topics such as what Eratosthenes meant when he used the word "philologos" to describe himself. The second half of the book was more interesting in that the author describes various attempts to measure the earth. However, here he is frustratingly lean on details. For example, I was fascinated to read about Al-Biruni's attempt to measure the circumference of the earth using only an Astrolabe and standing on a mountain top. How did he do it? I still don't know! The author writes "The details need not detain us here" and provides no helpful diagrams or explanations of his methodology.

This book does not do a good job of explaining ancient attempts to measure the globe and does not weave a cohesive, interesting story. It is full of random topics that have to do with the time period of Eratothenes and is also full of the author's own personal opinions about global warming, evolution, and myriad other topics which distracted from the book and showed a chronic inability to focus. The book did make me curious to learn more about Hellinistic history, ancient Greek astronomers, and explorers in the Age of Discovery, but the book itself was very frustrating and unsatisfying.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By TigerKnightPirate on December 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I generally enjoyed this exploration of the various scholarly controversies surrounding the historical accounts of Eratosthenes' calculation of the earth's circumference millenia ago. As a math teacher with a general interest in ancient history and its impact on the development of mathematics, this book was what I was hoping for.

I withheld the fifth star because while I recognize the need to set a social context for the events described, I thought this section of the book ran long without adding as much as I had hoped to my understanding of the specific problem at hand or of the man who solved it.

That said, I'm glad I read it.
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More About the Author

From Wikipedia:

Nicholas Nicastro is an American scholar and novelist.

Born in Astoria, New York in 1963, he received a BA in English from Cornell University (1985), an MFA in filmmaking from New York University (1991), an M.A. in archaeology and a Ph.D. in psychology from Cornell (1996 and 2003). He has also worked as a film critic, a hospital orderly, a newspaper reporter, a library archivist, a college lecturer in anthropology and psychology, an animal behaviorist, and an advertising salesman. His Cornell dissertation research on how humans respond to the vocalizations of domestic cats got some attention from the news media, especially in publications aimed at "cat people".

His writings include short fiction, travel and science articles in such publications as The New York Times, The New York Observer, Film Comment, and the International Herald Tribune.

In 1996, he wrote and directed the documentary video "Science or Sacrilege: Native Americans, Archaeology & the Law", an examination of the conflict between scientists and native people for control of ancient remains. The video is currently distributed by Berkeley Media LLC, and is often shown in college courses on this subject.

Nicastro's ancient fiction, including "Empire of Ashes" and "The Isle of Stone", is characterized by a willingness to explore the dark underside of popular historical exploits. In Ashes, he presents the career of Alexander the Great from the perspective of a skeptical Athenian soldier/historian who must debunk Alexander's official divinity to save himself from a charge of sacrilege. In "Isle of Stone", Nicastro presents a portrait of ancient Sparta during the Peloponnesian War that departs from what classical historian Paul Cartledge calls "the Spartan mirage". Instead, he reveals both the roots and the consequences of practices that, some say, made Sparta the Western world's prototype of a totalitarian society.