Born: about 85 in Egypt
Died: about 165 in Alexandria, Egypt
One of the most influential Greek astronomers and geographers of his time, Ptolemy propounded the geocentric theory in a form that prevailed for 1400 years. However, of all the ancient Greek mathematicians, it is fair to say that his work has generated more discussion and argument than any other. We shall discuss the arguments below for, depending on which are correct, they portray Ptolemy in very different lights. The arguments of some historians show that Ptolemy was a mathematician of the very top rank, arguments of others show that he was no more than a superb expositor, but far worse, some even claim that he committed a crime against his fellow scientists by betraying the ethics and integrity of his profession.
We know very little of Ptolemy's life. He made astronomical observations from Alexandria in Egypt during the years AD 127-41. In fact the first observation which we can date exactly was made by Ptolemy on 26 March 127 while the last was made on 2 February 141. It was claimed by Theodore Meliteniotes in around 1360 that Ptolemy was born in Hermiou (which is in Upper Egypt rather than Lower Egypt where Alexandria is situated) but since this claim first appears more than one thousand years after Ptolemy lived, it must be treated as relatively unlikely to be true. In fact there is no evidence that Ptolemy was ever anywhere other than Alexandria.
His name, Claudius Ptolemy, is of course a mixture of the Greek Egyptian 'Ptolemy' and the Roman 'Claudius'. This would indicate that he was descended from a Greek family living in Egypt and that he was a citizen of Rome, which would be as a result of a Roman emperor giving that 'reward' to one of Ptolemy's ancestors.
We do know that Ptolemy used observations made by 'Theon the mathematician', and this was almost certainly Theon of Smyrna who almost certainly was his teacher. Certainly this would make sense since Theon of Smyrna was both an observer and a mathematician who had written on astronomical topics such as conjunctions, eclipses, occultations and transits. Most of Ptolemy's early works are dedicated to Syrus who may have also been one of his teachers in Alexandria, but nothing is known of Syrus.
If these facts about Ptolemy's teachers are correct then certainly in Theon of Smyrna he did not have a great scholar, for Theon of Smyrna seems not to have understood in any depth the astronomical work he describes. On the other hand Alexandria had a tradition for scholarship which would mean that even if Ptolemy did not have access to the best teachers, he would have access to the libraries where he would have found the valuable reference material of which he made good use.
Ptolemy's major works have survived and we shall discuss them in this article. The most important, however, is the Almagest which is a treatise in thirteen books. We should say straight away that, although the work is now almost always known as the Almagest that was not its original name. Its original Greek title translates as The Mathematical Compilation but this title was soon replaced by another Greek title which means The Greatest Compilation. This was translated into Arabic as "al-majisti" and from this the title Almagest was given to the work when it was translated from Arabic to Latin.
The Almagest is the earliest of Ptolemy's works and gives in detail the mathematical theory of the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets. Ptolemy made his most original contribution by presenting details for the motions of each of the planets. The Almagest was not superseded until a century after Copernicus presented his heliocentric theory in the De revolutionibus of 1543. Grasshoff writes in:-
Ptolemy's "Almagest" shares with Euclid's "Elements" the glory of being the scientific text longest in use. From its conception in the second century up to the late Renaissance, this work determined astronomy as a science. During this time the "Almagest" was not only a work on astronomy; the subject was defined as what is described in the "Almagest".
Ptolemy describes himself very clearly what he is attempting to do in writing the work (see for example ):-
We shall try to note down everything which we think we have discovered up to the present time; we shall do this as concisely as possible and in a manner which can be followed by those who have already made some progress in the field. For the sake of completeness in our treatment we shall set out everything useful for the theory of the heavens in the proper order, but to avoid undue length we shall merely recount what has been adequately established by the ancients. However, those topics which have not been dealt with by our predecessors at all, or not as usefully as they might have been, will be discussed at length to the best of our ability.
Ptolemy first of all justifies his description of the universe based on the earth-centred system described by Aristotle. It is a view of the world based on a fixed earth around which the sphere of the fixed stars rotates every day, this carrying with it the spheres of the sun, moon, and planets. Ptolemy used geometric models to predict the positions of the sun, moon, and planets, using combinations of circular motion known as epicycles. Having set up this model, Ptolemy then goes on to describe the mathematics which he needs in the rest of the work. In particular he introduces trigonometrical methods based on the chord function Crd (which is related to the sine function by sin a = (Crd 2a)/120).
Ptolemy devised new geometrical proofs and theorems. He obtained, using chords of a circle and an inscribed 360-gon, the approximation
= 3 17/120 = 3.14166
and, using 3 = chord 60,
3 = 1.73205.
He used formulas for the Crd function which are analogous to our formulas for sin(a + b), sin(a - b) and sin a/2 to create a table of the Crd function at intervals of 1/2 a degree.
This occupies the first two of the 13 books of the Almagest and then, quoting again from the introduction, we give Ptolemy's own description of how he intended to develop the rest of the mathematical astronomy in the work (see for example ):-
[After introducing the mathematical concepts] we have to go through the motions of the sun and of the moon, and the phenomena accompanying these motions; for it would be impossible to examine the theory of the stars thoroughly without first having a grasp of these matters. Our final task in this way of approach is the theory of the stars. Here too it would be appropriate to deal first with the sphere of the so-called 'fixed stars', and follow that by treating the five 'planets', as they are called.
In examining the theory of the sun, Ptolemy compares his own observations of equinoxes with those of Hipparchus and the earlier observations Meton in 432 BC. He confirmed the length of the tropical year as 1/300 of a day less than 365 1/4 days, the precise value obtained by Hipparchus. Since, as Ptolemy himself knew, the accuracy of the rest of his data depended heavily on this value, the fact that the true value is 1/128 of a day less than 365 1/4 days did produce errors in the rest of the work. We shall discuss below in more detail the accusations which have been made against Ptolemy, but this illustrates clearly the grounds for these accusations since Ptolemy had to have an error of 28 hours in his observation of the equinox to produce this error, and even given the accuracy that could be expected with ancient instruments and methods, it is essentially unbelievable that he could have made an error of this magnitude. A good discussion of this strange error is contained in the excellent article .
Based on his observations of solstices and equinoxes, Ptolemy found the lengths of the seasons and, based on these, he proposed a simple model for the sun which was a circular motion of uniform angular velocity, but the earth was not at the centre of the circle but at a distance called the eccentricity from this centre. This theory of the sun forms the subject of Book 3 of the Almagest.
In Books 4 and 5 Ptolemy gives his theory of the moon. Here he follows Hipparchus who had studied three different periods which one could associate with the motion of the moon. There is the time taken for the moon to return to the same longitude, the time taken for it to return to the same velocity (the anomaly) and the time taken for it to return to the same latitude. Ptolemy also discusses, as Hipparchus had done, the synodic month, that is the time between successive oppositions of the sun and moon. In Book 4 Ptolemy gives Hipparchus's epicycle model for the motion of the moon but he notes, as in fact Hipparchus had done himself, that there are small discrepancies between the model and the observed parameters. Although noting the discrepancies, Hipparchus seems not to have worked out a better model, but Ptolemy does this in Book 5 where the model he gives improves markedly on the one proposed by Hipparchus. An interesting discussion of Ptolemy's theory of the moon is given in .
Having given a theory for the motion of the sun and of the moon, Ptolemy was in a position to apply these to obtain a theory of eclipses which he does in Book 6. The next two books deal with the fixed stars and in Book 7 Ptolemy uses his own observations together with those of Hipparchus to justify his belief that the fixed stars always maintain the same positions relative to each other. He wrote (see for example ):-
If one were to match the above alignments against the diagrams forming the constellat