Spherical geometry

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The sum of the angles of a spherical triangle is not equal to 180deg. A sphere is a curved surface, but locally the laws of the flat (planar) Euclidean geometry are good approximations. In a small triangle on the face of the earth, the sum of the angles is only slightly more than 180 degrees. Triangles (spherical geometry).jpg
The sum of the angles of a spherical triangle is not equal to 180°. A sphere is a curved surface, but locally the laws of the flat (planar) Euclidean geometry are good approximations. In a small triangle on the face of the earth, the sum of the angles is only slightly more than 180 degrees.
A sphere with a spherical triangle on it. Spherical triangle 3d.png
A sphere with a spherical triangle on it.

Spherical geometry is the geometry of the two-dimensional surface of a sphere. In this context the word "sphere" refers only to the 2-dimensional surface and other terms like "ball" or "solid sphere" are used for the surface together with its 3-dimensional interior.


Long studied for its practical applications to navigation and astronomy, spherical geometry bears many similarities and relationships to, and important differences from, Euclidean plane geometry. The sphere has for the most part been studied as a part of 3-dimensional Euclidean geometry (often called solid geometry), the surface thought of as placed inside an ambient 3-d space. It can also be analyzed by "intrinsic" methods that only involve the surface itself, and do not refer to, or even assume the existence of, any surrounding space outside or inside the sphere.

Because a sphere and a plane differ geometrically, (intrinsic) spherical geometry has some features of a non-Euclidean geometry and is sometimes described as being one. However, spherical geometry was not considered a full-fledged non-Euclidean geometry sufficient to resolve the ancient problem of whether the parallel postulate is a logical consequence of the rest of Euclid's axioms of plane geometry. The solution was found instead in hyperbolic geometry.


In plane (Euclidean) geometry, the basic concepts are points and (straight) lines. In spherical geometry, the basic concepts are point and great circle. However, two great circles on a plane intersect in two antipodal points, unlike coplanar lines in Elliptic geometry.

In the extrinsic 3-dimensional picture, a great circle is the intersection of the sphere with any plane through the center. In the intrinsic approach, a great circle is a geodesic; a shortest path between any two of its points provided they are close enough. Or, in the (also intrinsic) axiomatic approach analogous to Euclid's axioms of plane geometry, "great circle" is simply an undefined term, together with postulates stipulating the basic relationships between great circles and the also-undefined "points". This is the same as Euclid's method of treating point and line as undefined primitive notions and axiomatizing their relationships.

Great circles in many ways play the same logical role in spherical geometry as lines in Euclidean geometry, e.g., as the sides of (spherical) triangles. This is more than an analogy; spherical and plane geometry and others can all be unified under the umbrella of geometry built from distance measurement, where "lines" are defined to mean shortest paths (geodesics). Many statements about the geometry of points and such "lines" are equally true in all those geometries provided lines are defined that way, and the theory can be readily extended to higher dimensions. Nevertheless, because its applications and pedagogy are tied to solid geometry, and because the generalization loses some important properties of lines in the plane, spherical geometry ordinarily does not use the term "line" at all to refer to anything on the sphere itself. If developed as a part of solid geometry, use is made of points, straight lines and planes (in the Euclidean sense) in the surrounding space.

In spherical geometry, angles are defined between great circles, resulting in a spherical trigonometry that differs from ordinary trigonometry in many respects; for example, the sum of the interior angles of a spherical triangle exceeds 180 degrees.

Relation to similar geometries

Spherical geometry is closely related to elliptic geometry.

An important geometry related to that of the sphere is that of the real projective plane; it is obtained by identifying antipodal points (pairs of opposite points) on the sphere. Locally, the projective plane has all the properties of spherical geometry, but it has different global properties. In particular, it is non-orientable, or one-sided, and unlike the sphere it cannot be drawn as a surface in 3-dimensional space without intersecting itself.

Concepts of spherical geometry may also be applied to the oblong sphere, though minor modifications must be implemented on certain formulas.

Higher-dimensional spherical geometries exist; see elliptic geometry.


Greek antiquity

The earliest mathematical work of antiquity to come down to our time is On the rotating sphere (Περὶ κινουμένης σφαίρας, Peri kinoumenes sphairas) by Autolycus of Pitane, who lived at the end of the fourth century BC. [1]

Spherical trigonometry was studied by early Greek mathematicians such as Theodosius of Bithynia, a Greek astronomer and mathematician who wrote the Sphaerics, a book on the geometry of the sphere, [2] and Menelaus of Alexandria, who wrote a book on spherical trigonometry called Sphaerica and developed Menelaus' theorem. [3] [4]

Islamic world

The Book of Unknown Arcs of a Sphere written by the Islamic mathematician Al-Jayyani is considered to be the first treatise on spherical trigonometry. The book contains formulae for right-handed triangles, the general law of sines, and the solution of a spherical triangle by means of the polar triangle. [5]

The book On Triangles by Regiomontanus, written around 1463, is the first pure trigonometrical work in Europe. However, Gerolamo Cardano noted a century later that much of its material on spherical trigonometry was taken from the twelfth-century work of the Andalusi scholar Jabir ibn Aflah. [6]

Euler's work

Leonhard Euler published a series of important memoirs on spherical geometry:


Spherical geometry has the following properties: [7]

As there are two arcs determined by a pair of points, which are not antipodal, on the great circle they determine, three non-collinear points do not determine a unique triangle. However, if we only consider triangles whose sides are minor arcs of great circles, we have the following properties:

Relation to Euclid's postulates

If "line" is taken to mean great circle, spherical geometry obeys two of Euclid's postulates: the second postulate ("to produce [extend] a finite straight line continuously in a straight line") and the fourth postulate ("that all right angles are equal to one another"). However, it violates the other three. Contrary to the first postulate ("that between any two points, there is a unique line segment joining them"), there is not a unique shortest route between any two points (antipodal points such as the north and south poles on a spherical globe are counterexamples); contrary to the third postulate, a sphere does not contain circles of arbitrarily great radius; and contrary to the fifth (parallel) postulate, there is no point through which a line can be drawn that never intersects a given line. [8]

A statement that is equivalent to the parallel postulate is that there exists a triangle whose angles add up to 180°. Since spherical geometry violates the parallel postulate, there exists no such triangle on the surface of a sphere. The sum of the angles of a triangle on a sphere is 180°(1 + 4f), where f is the fraction of the sphere's surface that is enclosed by the triangle. For any positive value of f, this exceeds 180°.

See also


  1. Rosenfeld, B.A (1988). A history of non-Euclidean geometry : evolution of the concept of a geometric space. New York: Springer-Verlag. p. 2. ISBN   0-387-96458-4.
  2. "Theodosius of Bithynia – Dictionary definition of Theodosius of Bithynia". HighBeam Research . Retrieved 25 March 2015.
  3. O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Menelaus of Alexandria", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive , University of St Andrews
  4. "Menelaus of Alexandria Facts, information, pictures". HighBeam Research . Retrieved 25 March 2015.
  5. School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences University of St Andrews
  6. Victor J. Katz-Princeton University Press
  7. Merserve , pp. 281-282
  8. Gowers, Timothy, Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002: pp. 94 and 98.

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