1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Geometrical Continuity

GEOMETRICAL CONTINUITY. In a report of the Institute prefixed to Jean Victor Poncelet’s Traité des propriétés projectives des figures (Paris, 1822), it is said that he employed “ce qu’il appelle le principe de continuité.” The law or principle thus named by him had, he tells us, been tacitly assumed as axiomatic by “les plus savans géomètres.” It had in fact been enunciated as “lex continuationis,” and “la loi de la continuité,” by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (Oxf. N.E.D.), and previously under another name by Johann Kepler in cap. iv. 4 of his Ad Vitellionem paralipomena quibus astronomiae pars optica traditur (Francofurti, 1604). Of sections of the cone, he says, there are five species from the “recta linea” or line-pair to the circle. From the line-pair we pass through an infinity of hyperbolas to the parabola, and thence through an infinity of ellipses to the circle. Related to the sections are certain remarkable points which have no name. Kepler calls them foci. The circle has one focus at the centre, an ellipse or hyperbola two foci equidistant from the centre. The parabola has one focus within it, and another, the “caecus focus,” which may be imagined to be at infinity on the axis within or without the curve. The line from it to any point of the section is parallel to the axis. To carry out the analogy we must speak paradoxically, and say that the line-pair likewise has foci, which in this case coalesce as in the circle and fall upon the lines themselves; for our geometrical terms should be subject to analogy. Kepler dearly loves analogies, his most trusty teachers, acquainted with all the secrets of nature, “omnium naturae arcanorum conscios.” And they are to be especially regarded in geometry as, by the use of “however absurd expressions,” classing extreme limiting forms with an infinity of intermediate cases, and placing the whole essence of a thing clearly before the eyes.

Here, then, we find formulated by Kepler the doctrine of the concurrence of parallels at a single point at infinity and the principle of continuity (under the name analogy) in relation to the infinitely great. Such conceptions so strikingly propounded in a famous work could not escape the notice of contemporary mathematicians. Henry Briggs, in a letter to Kepler from Merton College, Oxford, dated “10 Cal. Martiis 1625,” suggests improvements in the Ad Vitellionem paralipomena, and gives the following construction: Draw a line CBADC, and let an ellipse, a parabola, and a hyperbola have B and A for focus and vertex. Let CC be the other foci of the ellipse and the hyperbola. Make AD equal to AB, and with centres CC and radius in each case equal to CD describe circles. Then any point of the ellipse is equidistant from the focus B and one circle, and any point of the hyperbola from the focus B and the other circle. Any point P of the parabola, in which the second focus is missing or infinitely distant, is equidistant from the focus B and the line through D which we call the directrix, this taking the place of either circle when its centre C is at infinity, and every line CP being then parallel to the axis. Thus Briggs, and we know not how many “savans géomètres” who have left no record, had already taken up the new doctrine in geometry in its author’s lifetime. Six years after Kepler’s death in 1630 Girard Desargues, “the Monge of his age,” brought out the first of his remarkable works founded on the same principles, a short tract entitled Méthode universelle de mettre en perspective les objets donnés réellement ou en devis (Paris, 1636); but “Le privilége étoit de 1630.” (Poudra, Œuvres de Des., i. 55). Kepler as a modern geometer is best known by his New Stereometry of Wine Casks (Lincii, 1615), in which he replaces the circuitous Archimedean method of exhaustion by a direct “royal road” of infinitesimals, treating a vanishing arc as a straight line and regarding a curve as made up of a succession of short chords. Some 2000 years previously one Antipho, probably the well-known opponent of Socrates, has regarded a circle in like manner as the limiting form of a many-sided inscribed rectilinear figure. Antipho’s notion was rejected by the men of his day as unsound, and when reproduced by Kepler it was again stoutly opposed as incapable of any sort of geometrical demonstration—not altogether without reason, for it rested on an assumed law of continuity rather than on palpable proof.

To complete the theory of continuity, the one thing needful was the idea of imaginary points implied in the algebraical geometry of René Descartes, in which equations between variables representing co-ordinates were found often to have imaginary roots. Newton, in his two sections on “Inventio orbium” (Principia i. 4, 5), shows in his brief way that he is familiar with the principles of modern geometry. In two propositions he uses an auxiliary line which is supposed to cut the conic in X and Y, but, as he remarks at the end of the second (prop. 24), it may not cut it at all. For the sake of brevity he passes on at once with the observation that the required constructions are evident from the case in which the line cuts the trajectory. In the scholium appended to prop. 27, after saying that an asymptote is a tangent at infinity, he gives an unexplained general construction for the axes of a conic, which seems to imply that it has asymptotes. In all such cases, having equations to his loci in the background, he may have thought of elements of the figure as passing into the imaginary state in such manner as not to vitiate conclusions arrived at on the hypothesis of their reality.

Roger Joseph Boscovich, a careful student of Newton’s works, has a full and thorough discussion of geometrical continuity in the third and last volume of his Elementa universae matheseos (ed. prim. Venet, 1757), which contains Sectionum conicarum elementa nova quadam methodo concinnata et dissertationem de transformatione locorum geometricorum, ubi de continuitatis lege, et de quibusdam infiniti mysteriis. His first principle is that all varieties of a defined locus have the same properties, so that what is demonstrable of one should be demonstrable in like manner of all, although some artifice may be required to bring out the underlying analogy between them. The opposite extremities of an infinite straight line, he says, are to be regarded as joined, as if the line were a circle having its centre at the infinity on either side of it. This leads up to the idea of a veluti plus quam infinita extensio, a line-circle containing, as we say, the line infinity. Change from the real to the imaginary state is contingent upon the passage of some element of a figure through zero or infinity and never takes place per saltum. Lines being some positive and some negative, there must be negative rectangles and negative squares, such as those of the exterior diameters of a hyperbola. Boscovich’s first principle was that of Kepler, by whose quantumvis absurdis locutionibus the boldest applications of it are covered, as when we say with Poncelet that all concentric circles in a plane touch one another in two imaginary fixed points at infinity. In G. K. Ch. von Staudt’s Geometrie der Lage and Beiträge zur G. der L. (Nürnberg, 1847, 1856–1860) the geometry of position, including the extension of the field of pure geometry to the infinite and the imaginary, is presented as an independent science, “welche des Messens nicht bedarf.” (See Geometry: Projective.)

Ocular illusions due to distance, such as Roger Bacon notices in the Opus majus (i. 126, ii. 108, 497; Oxford, 1897), lead up to or illustrate the mathematical uses of the infinite and its reciprocal the infinitesimal. Specious objections can, of course, be made to the anomalies of the law of continuity, but they are inherent in the higher geometry, which has taught us so much of the “secrets of nature.” Kepler’s excursus on the “analogy” between the conic sections hereinbefore referred to is given at length in an article on “The Geometry of Kepler and Newton” in vol. xviii. of the Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (1900). It had been generally overlooked, until attention was called to it by the present writer in a note read in 1880 (Proc. C.P.S. iv. 14–17), and shortly afterwards in The Ancient and Modern Geometry of Conics, with Historical Notes and Prolegomena (Cambridge 1881).  (C. T.*)