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Duplication of the Cube

Along with squaring the circle and trisecting an angle, duplication of a cube is considered one of the three "unsolvable" problems of mathematical antiquity.

According to tradition, the problem of duplication of the cube arose when the Greeks of Athens sought the assistance of the oracle at Delos in order to gain relief from a devasting epidemic. The oracle told them that to do so they must double the size of the altar of Apollo which was in the shape of a cube.

Their first attempt at doing this was a misunderstanding of the problem: They doubled the length of the sides of the cube. This, however, gave them eight times the original volume since (2x)3 = 8 x3.

In modern notation, in order to fulfill the instructions of the oracle, we must go from a cube of side x units to one of y units where y3 = 2x3, so that y = cuberoot-2 x.

Thus, essentially, given a unit length, they needed to construct a line segment of length cuberoot-2 units. Now there are ways of doing this but not by using only a compass and an unmarked straight edge-which were the only tools allowed in classical Greek geometry.

Thus there is no solution to the Delian problem that the Greeks would accept and, presumably, the epidemic continued until it ran its accustomed course.



Stillwell, John. Mathematics: Its History. Springer-Verlag, 1991.

Roy Dubisch

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