Sunday, 25 January 2009

Rheticus, and The Names of Trigonometric Ratios

Spending lots of time lately reading old English journal articles (1825-45) sent me by Dave Renfro who trys to help me stay up on the history of math. It is kind of great reading and watching the actual history of ideas unfold as they did in the old journals.... I came across an interesting letter from Agustus De Morgan about the protege of Copernicus, George Joachim of Rhaetia, also called Rheticus. It was Rheticus who managed to convince Copernicus to publish his long withheld manuscript.
I didn't realize for some years of teaching that in the early days the trigonometric functions were conceived to be lengths of segments in a circle of a give diameter rather than the more modern view of ratios. I did not know until I read this article, that apparenty it was Rheticus who first developed this approach. In fact, the tables he created to include in his publication of the trigonmetric sections of De Revolutionibus were the first tables to include cosines (although he did not use these names). Here is the way De Morgan wrote it:
" Modern teachers (he writes in 1845) of trigonometry have pretty generally abandoned the system of independent lines, which used to be called sines, tangents, &c.; and have substituted, for the meaning of these words, the ratio of the sides of right-angled triangles. It appears that they have antiquity in their favor; indeed so completely has the idea of representing the ratios of the sides of triangles taken possession of the mind of Rheticus, that he abandons the use of the word sine. He dwells on the importance of the right-angled triangles, without any reference to the circle: his maxim expressed in the dialogue, is Triquetrum in planicie cum angulo recto, est magister Mathesos . It would also seem as if his choice of the semi-quadrantal arrangement with double descriptions was dictated merely by the convenience of heading one division with majus latus, and the other with minus latus. [Rheticus had labled the top of his table with perpendiculum and basis, then the bottoms of these columns were reversed, much as Sine and Cosine were reversed at the top and bottom of tables used in my youth before calculators]........ The names cosine, cotangent, and cosecant are the consequence, not the cause, of this duplicate system of arrangements.......The introduction of the terms sine of the complement, complemental sine, and cosine, &c., followed after an interval of more than half a century."
De Morgan points out that one of the reasons it is so hard to find copies of much of Rheticus' work is that ", In the Index Expurgatorius, it is not copernicus who is forbidden to be read generally; the prohibition only extends to the work De Revolutionibus, and is accompanied with a nisi corrigatur. But Rheticus is wholly forbidden to be read in any of his works. "
I think the difference in the two mens' treatment in the Index may be because of the fact that Rheticus was Protestant, and infact, was at Wittenburg, the very University where Luther had taught, and burned the Papal Bull.

An interesting anectdote told about Rheticus while he was, "puzzling himself about the motion of Mars, he invoked his genius or guardian angel to help him out of the difficulty: the angel accordingly lifted him up by the hair of his head to the roof and threw him down upon the pavement saying with a bitter laugh, 'That's the way Mars moves.' "

addendum James asked about the phrase "semi-quadrantal"... this just means he only went from 0 degrees to 45 degrees (1/2 of a quadrant) and then put Sin-Cos (he didn't use these words) at the top of the columns and Cos-Sin in the reverse order at the bottom... so that from 45 to 90 degrees was simply read up from the bottom....
also, Giving Sin and Cosine as ratios was still pretty new when this was written by De Morgan. It appears that Peacock had initiated the practice in his lectures at Cambridge around 1830, and by 1837, according to De Morgan, it had become the accepted way to define the terms.
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