Thursday, August 23, 2012

Platonic Solids

In Euclidean geometry, a Platonic solid is a regular, convex polyhedron. The faces are congruent, regular polygons, with the same number of faces meeting at each vertex.  There are five Platonic solids; their names are derived from their numbers of faces.

The aesthetic beauty and symmetry of the Platonic solids have made them a favorite subject of geometers for thousands of years. They are named for the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who theorized that the classical elements were constructed from the regular solids.

The Platonic solids have been known since antiquity. Ornamented models of them can be found among the carved stone balls created by the late neolithic people of Scotland at least 1000 years before Plato.

The ancient Greeks studied the Platonic solids extensively. Some sources (such as Proclus) credit Pythagoras with their discovery. Other evidence suggests he may have only been familiar with the tetrahedron, cube, and dodecahedron, and that the discovery of the octahedron and icosahedron belong to Theaetetus, a contemporary of Plato.

Euclid gave a complete mathematical description of the Platonic solids in the Elements, the last book (Book XIII) of which is devoted to their properties. Propositions 13–17 in Book XIII describe the construction of the tetrahedron, octahedron, cube, icosahedron, and dodecahedron in that order. For each solid Euclid finds the ratio of the diameter of the circumscribed sphere to the edge length. In Proposition 18 he argues that there are no further convex regular polyhedra. Much of the information in Book XIII is probably derived from the work of Theaetetus.

In the 16th century, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler attempted to find a relation between the five extraterrestrial planets known at that time and the five Platonic solids. In Mysterium Cosmographicum, published in 1596, Kepler laid out a model of the solar system in which the five solids were set inside one another and separated by a series of inscribed and circumscribed spheres. Kepler proposed that the distance relationships between the six planets known at that time could be understood in terms of the five Platonic solids, enclosed within a sphere that represented the orbit of Saturn. The six spheres each corresponded to one of the planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). The solids were ordered with the innermost being the octahedron, followed by the icosahedron, dodecahedron, tetrahedron, and finally the cube. In this way the structure of the solar system and the distance relationships between the planets was dictated by the Platonic solids. In the end, Kepler's original idea had to be abandoned, but out of his research came his three laws of orbital dynamics, the first of which was that the orbits of planets are ellipses rather than circles, changing the course of physics and astronomy. He also discovered the Kepler solids.

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