The Almagest: Introduction to the Mathematics of the Heavens by Ptolemy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… it is not fitting even to judge what is simple in itself in heavenly things on the basis of things that seem to be simple among us.

In my abysmal ignorance, I had for years assumed that tracking the orbits of the sun and planets would be straightforward. All you needed was a starting location, a direction, and the daily speed—and, with some simple arithmetic and a bit of graph paper, it would be clear as day. Attempting to read Ptolemy has revealed the magnitude of my error. Charting the heavenly bodies is a deviously complicated affair; and Ptolemy’s solution must rank as one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of antiquity—fully comparable with the great scientific achievements of European Enlightenment. Indeed, Otto Neugebauer, the preeminent scholar of ancient astronomy, went so far as to say:

One can perfectly well understand the ‘Principia’ without much knowledge of earlier astronomy but one cannot read a single chapter in Copernicus or Kepler without a thorough knowledge of Ptolemy’s “Almagest”. Up to Newton all astronomy consists in modifications, however ingenious, of Hellenistic astronomy.

With more hope than sense, I cracked open my copy of *The Great Books of the Western World*, which has a full translation of the Almagest in the 16th volume. Immediately repulsed by the text, I then acquired a students’ edition of the book published by the Green Lion Press. This proved to be an excellent choice. Through introductions, preliminaries, footnotes, and appendices—not to mention generous omissions—this edition attempts to make Ptolemy accessible to a diligent college student. Even so, for someone with my background to attain a thorough knowledge of this text, he would still require months of dedicated study with a teacher as a guide. For the text is difficult in numerous ways.

Most obviously, this book is full of mathematical proofs and calculations, which are not exactly my strong suit. Ptolemy’s mathematical language—relying on the Greek geometrical method—will be unfamiliar to students who have not read some Euclid; and even if it is familiar, it proves cumbrous for the sorts of calculations demanded by the subject. To make matters worse, Ptolemy employs the sexagesimal system (based on multiples of 60) for fractions; so his numbers all must be converted into our decimals for calculation. What is more, even the names of the months Ptolemy uses are different, bearing their Egyptian names (Thoth, Phaöphi, Athur, etc.), since Ptolemy was an Alexandrian Greek. Yet even if we put all these technical obstacles to the side, we are left with Ptolemy’s oddly infelicitous prose, which the translator describes thus:

In general, there is a sort of opacity, even awkwardness, to Ptolemy’s writing, especially when he is providing a larger frame for a topic or presenting a philosophical discussion.

Thus, even in the non-technical parts of the book, Ptolemy’s writing tends to be headache-inducing. All this combines to form an unremitting slog. So since my interest in this book was amateurish, I skimmed and skipped liberally. Yet this text is so rich that, even proceeding in such a dilettantish fashion, I managed to learn a great deal.

Ptolemy’s *Almagest*, like Euclid’s *Elements*, proved so comprehensive and conclusive when it was published that it rendered nearly all previous astronomical work obsolete or superfluous. For this reason, we know little about Ptolemy’s predecessors, since there was little point in preserving their work after Ptolemy summed it up in such magnificent fashion. As a result it is unclear how much of this book is original and how much is simply adapted. As Ptolemy himself admits, he owes a substantial debt to the astronomer Hipparchus, who lived around 200 years earlier. Yet it does seem that Ptolemy originated the novel way of accounting for the planets’ position and speed, which he puts forth in later books.

Ptolemy begins by explaining the method by which he will measure chords; this leads him to construct one of the most precise trigonometric tables from antiquity. Later, Ptolemy goes on to produce several proofs of spherical trigonometry, which allows him to measure distances on the inside of a sphere, making this book an important source for Greek trigonometry as well as astronomy. Ptolemy also employs Menelaus’ Theorem, which uses the fixed proportions of a triangle to establish ratios. (From this I see that triangles are marvelously useful shapes, since they are the only shape which is rigid—that is, the angles cannot be altered without also changing the ratio of the sides, and vice versa. This is also, by the way, what makes triangles such strong structural components.)

Ptolemy gets down to business by analyzing the sun’s motion. This is tricky for several reasons. For one, the sun does not travel parallel to the “fixed stars” (so called because the stars do not position change relative to one another), but rather at an angle, which Ptolemy calculates to be around 23 degrees. We now know this is due to earth’s axial tilt, but for Ptolemy it was called the obliquity of the ecliptic (the angle of the sun’s path). Also, the angle that the sun travels through the sky (straight overhead or nearer the horizon) is determined by one’s latitude; this also determines the seasonal shifts in day-length; and during these shifts, the sun rises on different points on the horizon. To add to these already daunting variables, the sun also shifts in speed during the course of the year. And finally, Ptolemy had to factor in the procession of the equinoxes—the ecliptic’s gradual westward motion from year to year.

The planets turn out to be even more complex. For they all exhibit anomalies in their orbits which entail further complications. Venus, for example, not only speeds up and slows down, but also seems to go forwards and backwards along its orbit. This leads Ptolemy to the adoption of epicylces—little circles which travel along the greater circle, called the “deferent,” of the planet’s orbit. But to preserve the circular motion of the deferent, Ptolemy must place the center (called the “eccentric”) away from earth, in empty space. Then, Ptolemy introduces another imaginary circle, around which the planet travels with constant velocity: and the center of this is called the “equant,” which is also in empty space. Thus the planet’s motion was circular around one point (the eccentric) and constant around another circle (the equant), neither of which coincide with earth (so much for geocentric astronomy). In addition to all this, the orbit of Venus is not exactly parallel with the sun’s orbit, but tilted, and its tilt wobbles throughout the year. For Ptolemy to account for all this using only the most primitive observational instruments and without the use of calculus or analytic geometry is an extraordinary feat of patience, vision, and drudgery.

Even after writing all this, I am not giving a fair picture of the scope of Ptolemy’s achievement. This book also includes an extensive star catalogue, with the location and brightness of over one thousand stars observable with the naked eye. He argues strongly for earth’s sphericity (so much for a flat earth) and even offers a calculation of earth’s diameter (which was 28% too small). Ptolemy also calculates the distance from the earth to the moon, using the lunar parallax (the difference in the moon’s appearance when seen from different positions on earth), which comes out the quite accurate figure of 59 earth radii. And all of this is set forth in dry, sometimes baffling prose, accompanied by pages of proofs and tables. One can see why later generations of astronomers thought there was little to add to Ptolemy’s achievement, and why Arabic translators dubbed it “the greatest” (from which we get the English name).

A direct acquaintance with Ptolemy belies his popular image as a metaphysical pseudo-scientist, foolishly clinging to a geocentric model, using ad-hoc epicycles to account for deviations in his theories. To the contrary, Ptolemy scarcely ever touches on metaphysical or philosophical arguments, preferring to stay in the precise world of figures and proofs. And if science consists in predicting phenomena, then Ptolemy’s system was clearly the best scientific theory around for its range and accuracy. Indeed, a waggish philosopher might dismiss the whole question of whether the sun or the earth was at the “center” as entirely metaphysical (is it falsifiable?). Certainly it was not mere prejudice that kept Ptolemy’s system alive for so long.

Admittedly, Ptolemy does occasionally include airy metaphysical statements:

We propose to demonstrate that, just as for the sun and moon, all the apparent anomalistic motions of the five planets are produced through uniform, circular motions; these are proper to the nature of what is divine, but foreign to disorder and variability.

Yet notions of perfection seem hard to justify, even within Ptolemy’s own theory. The combined motions of the deferent and the epicycle do not make a circle, but a wavy shape called an epitrochoid. And the complex world of interlocking, overlapping, slanted circles—centered on imaginary points, riddled with deviations and anomalies—hardly fits the stereotypical image of an orderly Ptolemaic world.

It must be said that Ptolemy’s system, however comprehensive, does leave some questions tantalizingly unanswered. For example, why do Mercury and Venus stay within a definite distance from the sun, and travel along at the same average speed as the sun? And why are the anomalies of the “outer planets” (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) sometimes related to the sun’s motion, and sometimes not? All this is very easy to explain in a heliocentric model, but rather baffling in a geocentric one; and Ptolemy does not even attempt an explanation. Even so, I think any reader of this volume must come to the conclusion that this is a massive achievement—and a lasting testament to the heights of brilliance and obscurity that a single mind can reach.

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