Conic Section Quotes (8 quotes)
Conic Sections Quotes
Conic Sections Quotes
Kepler’s discovery would not have been possible without the doctrine of conics. Now contemporaries of Kepler—such penetrating minds as Descartes and Pascal—were abandoning the study of geometry ... because they said it was so UTTERLY USELESS. There was the future of the human race almost trembling in the balance; for had not the geometry of conic sections already been worked out in large measure, and had their opinion that only sciences apparently useful ought to be pursued, the nineteenth century would have had none of those characters which distinguish it from the ancien régime.
No more impressive warning can be given to those who would confine knowledge and research to what is apparently useful, than the reflection that conic sections were studied for eighteen hundred years merely as an abstract science, without regard to any utility other than to satisfy the craving for knowledge on the part of mathematicians, and that then at the end of this long period of abstract study, they were found to be the necessary key with which to attain the knowledge of the most important laws of nature.
Success in the solution of a problem generally depends in a great measure on the selection of the most appropriate method of approaching it; many properties of conic sections (for instance) being demonstrable by a few steps of pure geometry which would involve the most laborious operations with trilinear co-ordinates, while other properties are almost self-evident under the method of trilinear co-ordinates, which it would perhaps be actually impossible to prove by the old geometry.
The discovery of the conic sections, attributed to Plato, first threw open the higher species of form to the contemplation of geometers. But for this discovery, which was probably regarded in Plato’s tune and long after him, as the unprofitable amusement of a speculative brain, the whole course of practical philosophy of the present day, of the science of astronomy, of the theory of projectiles, of the art of navigation, might have run in a different channel; and the greatest discovery that has ever been made in the history of the world, the law of universal gravitation, with its innumerable direct and indirect consequences and applications to every department of human research and industry, might never to this hour have been elicited.
The Greeks in the first vigour of their pursuit of mathematical truth, at the time of Plato and soon after, had by no means confined themselves to those propositions which had a visible bearing on the phenomena of nature; but had followed out many beautiful trains of research concerning various kinds of figures, for the sake of their beauty alone; as for instance in their doctrine of Conic Sections, of which curves they had discovered all the principal properties. But it is curious to remark, that these investigations, thus pursued at first as mere matters of curiosity and intellectual gratification, were destined, two thousand years later, to play a very important part in establishing that system of celestial motions which succeeded the Platonic scheme of cycles and epicycles. If the properties of conic sections had not been demonstrated by the Greeks and thus rendered familiar to the mathematicians of succeeding ages, Kepler would probably not have been able to discover those laws respecting the orbits and motions of planets which were the occasion of the greatest revolution that ever happened in the history of science.
The school of Plato has advanced the interests of the race as much through geometry as through philosophy. The modern engineer, the navigator, the astronomer, built on the truths which those early Greeks discovered in their purely speculative investigations. And if the poetry, statesmanship, oratory, and philosophy of our day owe much to Plato’s divine Dialogues, our commerce, our manufactures, and our science are equally indebted to his Conic Sections. Later instances may be abundantly quoted, to show that the labors of the mathematician have outlasted those of the statesman, and wrought mightier changes in the condition of the world. Not that we would rank the geometer above the patriot, but we claim that he is worthy of equal honor.
This [the fact that the pursuit of mathematics brings into harmonious action all the faculties of the human mind] accounts for the extraordinary longevity of all the greatest masters of the Analytic art, the Dii Majores of the mathematical Pantheon. Leibnitz lived to the age of 70; Euler to 76; Lagrange to 77; Laplace to 78; Gauss to 78; Plato, the supposed inventor of the conic sections, who made mathematics his study and delight, who called them the handles or aids to philosophy, the medicine of the soul, and is said never to have let a day go by without inventing some new theorems, lived to 82; Newton, the crown and glory of his race, to 85; Archimedes, the nearest akin, probably, to Newton in genius, was 75, and might have lived on to be 100, for aught we can guess to the contrary, when he was slain by the impatient and ill mannered sergeant, sent to bring him before the Roman general, in the full vigour of his faculties, and in the very act of working out a problem; Pythagoras, in whose school, I believe, the word mathematician (used, however, in a somewhat wider than its present sense) originated, the second founder of geometry, the inventor of the matchless theorem which goes by his name, the pre-cognizer of the undoubtedly mis-called Copernican theory, the discoverer of the regular solids and the musical canon who stands at the very apex of this pyramid of fame, (if we may credit the tradition) after spending 22 years studying in Egypt, and 12 in Babylon, opened school when 56 or 57 years old in Magna Græcia, married a young wife when past 60, and died, carrying on his work with energy unspent to the last, at the age of 99. The mathematician lives long and lives young; the wings of his soul do not early drop off, nor do its pores become clogged with the earthy particles blown from the dusty highways of vulgar life.
We find in the history of ideas mutations which do not seem to correspond to any obvious need, and at first sight appear as mere playful whimsies—such as Apollonius’ work on conic sections, or the non-Euclidean geometries, whose practical value became apparent only later.