Abstract / Synopsis

This essay describes the author's recent encounter with two well-known passages in Plutarch that touch on a crucial episode in the history of the Greek mathematics of the fourth century BCE involving various approaches to the problem of the duplication of the cube. One theme will be the way key sources for understanding the history of our subject sometimes come from texts that have much wider cultural contexts and resonances. Sensitivity to the history, to the mathematics, and to the language is necessary to tease out the meaning of such texts. However, in the past, historians of mathematics often interpreted these sources using the mathematics of their own times. Their sometimes anachronistic accounts have often been presented in the mainstream histories of mathematics to which mathematicians who do not read Greek must turn to learn about that history. With the original sources, the tidy and inevitable picture of the development of mathematics disappears and we are left with a much more interesting, if ultimately somewhat inconclusive, story.



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