|Back to . . .
Classics Index Page
The Parabola of Fermat:
A Member of the
Spiral Family of Plane Curves. . . .
The Parabola of Fermat
with a = 1, 2, or 3.
for a Parabolic Spiral
The spiral curves are easily entered and
modified on a graphing calculator.
The spiral on the tomb
of Jakob (James) Bernoulli.
Eadem mutata resurgo.
I shall arise the same though
Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665)
is credited with generalizing work on spirals dating from
he is far more famous for Fermat's
Last Theorem. Its
proof eluded great mathematicians until late in the 20th century when
Andrew Wiles patiently and laboriously produced its solution.
|Fermat scribbled the following in his
1621 copy of a translation
It is impossible to
divide a cube into two
cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any
power greater than the second, into two like powers, and I have a truly
marvelous demonstration of it. But this margin will not contain
In modern terms - not Latin - we would write,
Facts. . . . .
(287-212 B.C.) investigated spirals centuries before Fermat, Descartes
and Bernoulli, but he did not have the advantage
of symbolic algebra or analytic geometry.
both Fermat and his contemporary, René Descartes,
were lawyers. Both were also passionate lovers of number
theory. In 1636 Fermat wrote that 17,296 and 18,416
were "amicable" numbers. Descartes replied that he had also
found another pair - 9,363,584 and
9,437,056. As two
positive integers are said to be amicable
if each is the sum of the proper divisors of the other, their
calculations are slightly amazing for pre-calculator or computer
Later Fermat made a slight mistake. He sought a formula for
identifying prime numbers. He wrote others:
He had calculated for n =
2, 3, and 4. Later, Euler proved Fermat
wrong by finding that when n = 5, Fermat's formula was divisible by
641. May we suggest you try this on a calculator knowing
that these gentlemen were calculating by hand.
Father Mersenne, a Franciscan friar, philosopher, scientist and
mathematician asked Fermat if 100,895,598,169 was
prime. Fermat promptly wrote back "no" for its was the product
of 112,303 and 898,423!
Other Animations with MATHEMATICA®Code
legendary Delian problem in antiquity to modern
freeway construction, spirals have attracted great mathematical talent.
Among the more famous are Archimedes,
Euler, and Fermat, but there are many more whose work has
influenced pure mathematics, science and engineering.
The name spiral, where a curve winds outward
from a fixed point, has been extended to curves where the tracing
point moves alternately toward and away from the pole, the so-called sinusoidal
type. We find Cayley's Sextic, Tschirnhausen's Cubic, and
Lituus' shepherd's (or a bishop's) crook. Maclaurin, best known
work on series, discusses parabolic spirals in Harmonia Mensurarum (1722).
In architecture there is the
Ionic capital on a column. In nature, the spiraled chambered
nautilus is associated with the Golden Ratio, which again is associated
with the Fibonacci Sequence.
|Boyer, Carl B., revised by U. C. Merzbach,
A History of Mathematics, 2nd ed., John Wiley and
|Eves, Howard, An Introduction to the
History of Mathematics, 6th ed,. The Saunders College Publishing,
|FERMAT'S THEOREM, math HORIZONS, MAA, Winter, 1993,
|Gray, Alfred, Modern Differential Geometry of
Curves and Surfaces with MATHEMATICA®,
2nd ed., CRC Press, 1998.
|Katz, Victor J., A History of
- Addison Wesley, 2004.
|Lockwood, E. H., A Book of Curves,
Cambridge University Press, 1961.
|McQuarrie, Donald A., Mathematical
Methods for Scientists and Engineers, University Science Books,
|Shikin, Eugene V., Handbook and Atlas
of Curves, CRC Press, 1995.
|Yates, Robert, CURVES AND THEIR PROPERTIES,
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics,
Code and animation contributed by
Gus Gordillo, 2005.