March 22, 2001 Vol . 20, No. 6

Ptolemy translated to English

By Carol Thorbes

A groundbreaking treatise on cartography that's been Greek to many map buffs for centuries is now making sense, thanks to two scholars' knowledge of the ancient language and ancient mathematics.

Len Berggren, the chair of Simon Fraser University's mathematics department, and Alexander Jones, a University of Toronto classicist, are the authors of the first complete and reliable English translation of Ptolemy's Geography.

"Up until now most of the book, which is Ptolemy's exposition of the principles of map making, has only been available in Greek, Latin and Arabic," explains Berggren, who reads Greek and Arabic.

Originally written in Greek by the Alexandrian astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy in the second century A.D., Ptolemy's Geography is the only surviving work on cartography from classical antiquity.

After its translation into Latin around 1410 A.D., the book became a cartographer's bible. For the next two centuries, cartographers and explorers regarded it as the best source of map-making techniques and depictions of the world's geography, including its curvature.

Berggren, a historian of ancient mathematics, says the English translation, which took him and Jones 15 years to complete, will help popularize Ptolemy's farsightedness.

"Ptolemy's Geography introduced the use of longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates to map the world," says Berggren. "His technique enabled map makers to make their own maps using only the text of the Geography. For 15 centuries, Ptolemy's Geography represented the most thorough discussion of the importance of relying on astronomical observation and applied mathematics to determine location," says Berggren.

However, Ptolemy's cartography had its flaws. Berggren and Jones point out several in their in-depth analysis of the geographer's work.

"When Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the Americas in 1492 he mistook them for the shores of Asia because he had relied on Ptolemy's book, which seriously shortened the distance between Europe and Asia," notes Berggren.

He and Jones illustrate Ptolemy's view of the world by comparing colour reproductions of the geographer's original maps to present day maps. The two also trace the evolution of Ptolemy's maps in the hands of latter day mapmakers.


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