Abstract

This paper deals with the very different attitudes that Descartes and Pascal had to the cycloid—the curve traced by the motion of a point on the periphery of a circle as the circle rolls across a right line. Descartes insisted that such a curve was merely mechanical and not truly geometric, and so was of no real mathematical interest. He nevertheless responded to enquiries from Mersenne, who posed the problems of determining its area and constructing its tangent. Pascal, in contrast, saw the cycloid as a paradigm of geometric intelligibility, and he made it the focus of a series of challenge problems he posed to the mathematical world in 1658. After dealing with some of the history of the cycloid (including the work of Galileo, Mersenne, and Torricelli), I trace this difference in attitude to an underlying difference in the mathematical epistemologies of Descartes and Pascal. For Descartes, the truly geometric is that which can be expressed in terms of finite ratios between right lines, which in turn are expressible as closed polynomial equations. As Descartes pointed out, this means that ratios between straight and curved lines are not geometrically admissible, and curves (such as the cycloid) that require them must be banished from geometry. Pascal, in contrast, thought that the scope of geometry included curves such as the cycloid, which are to be studied by employing infinitesimal methods and ratios between curved and straight lines.

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