Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Parabolas, Tangents, and the Wallace-Simson Line

The oft-called Simson line was attributed to Simson by Poncelet, but is now frequently known as the Wallace-Simson line since it does not actually appear in any work of Simson. (Oh go on, ask your teacher, so WHY do we still call it the Simson line at all?)
The Wallace for whom the line should more probably be named is William Wallace FRSE (23 September 1768, Dysart—28 April 1843, Edinburgh; the Scottish mathematician and astronomer who invented the eidograph, a more complicated version of the pantograph used to make scale images of drawings. He was a protegee of John Playfair, and teacher to Mary Somerville. He wrote about the line in 1799. He is also not credited for his 1807 proof of a result about polygons with an equal area, which has become the Bolyai–Gerwien theorem. He was also one of the first in England/Scotland to promote the calculus as taught on the Continent.


The theorem says that if a triangle is inscribed in a circle, then if perpendiculars are dropped from a point on this circumcircle to the three sides of the triangle (extended as needed) the feet of these perpendiculars will lie on a straight line. It works the other way too. If you draw a straight line cutting all three sides of the triangle, perpendiculars drawn at these points of intersection will be concurrent at a point on the circumcircle.

I mentioned recently in a description of David Well's new book, Games and Mathematics, that I keep finding out new stuff. Well, he pointed out a connection between the Wallace line (he uses Simson, but I believe he knows better) and tangents of a parabola.

If you find three tangents to parabola and construct the circumcircle to the triangle formed by their mutual intersections, the circumcircle will pass through the focus of the parabola.
Tricky and cool, but what does that have to do with the the Wallace line? Well if you drop a perpendicular from the focus to ANY tangent, the foot of the perpendicular will always fall on the line tangent to the parabola at the vertex. The tangent at the vertex is a Wallace line for any triangle formed by three tangents to a parabola.

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