The Death of Euclid

A Poem - Collage Project
Poem by Sarah Glaz  with Collage by Mark Sanders

The poem-collage pair appears in the Bridges 2022 online art gallery:

Sarah Glaz

 Sarah Glaz
 University of Connecticut, Storrs,
 Connecticut, USA 
Mark Sanders

Mark Sanders 
Rushden, Northamptonshire,   

History, Mathematics, Poem, Collage

Euclid (323 - 285 BCE) lived in Alexandria, a Greek city situated in Egypt at the mouth of the Nile river. Alexandria was founded a few years before Euclid's birth by Alexander the Great. After Alexander's death, the city prospered under the Ptolemaic rule, becoming a thriving metropolis and a major trading hub on the Mediterranean shore. It remained the center of Hellenistic culture of the ancient world for a thousand years.


The early Ptolemies devoted themselves to making Alexandria the center of Hellenistic intellectual life. They built the Museum (seat of the muses), a forerunner of the modern university, and its legendary Library of Alexandria, which housed the largest collections of papyrus scrolls in the ancient world. The Museum was an institute of research and pursuit of learning, attracting a large number of scholars from the entire Hellenistic world. In particular, under the royal patronage, science and mathematics flourished at the Museum like in very few other periods of time in history. One of the scientific achievements of this period was the building of the Pharos lighthouse, which guided the merchant ships arriving at the port of Alexandria, an engineering marvel considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Euclid might have witnessed the early stages of its construction.


Euclid founded a school and taught mathematics at the Museum. Very little else is known about his life with any degree of certainty. Some historical sources claim that he received his mathematical training at the Athens Academy and was brought to Alexandria by Ptolemy I for the purpose of setting up the school of mathematics at the Museum.  During its several hundred years of existence, the Museum produced many other distinguished scholars whose work determined the course of future mathematics. Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Apollonius, Pappus, Claudius Ptolemy, Diophantus, and Hypatia were all educated or otherwise affiliated with the Museum and trained in the mathematical tradition established by Euclid. In this way, the mathematicians of the ancient world, and by extension all the mathematicians who came after, may be considered to be students of Euclid.


Although Euclid authored at least ten works, his fame rests almost exclusively on The Elements, a book that had profound impact on Western thought,  and set the foundation for mathematical standards of reasoning for all times. Only the Bible has been more widely reprinted and studied. The Elements is a compilation of the most important mathematical facts available at that time, containing 465 propositions from plane and solid geometry and from number theory. This superbly organized treatise, which furnished proofs in an axiomatic framework, was so successful that it obliterated all previous such compilations and became the standard school textbook for the study of geometry and logical thinking for 20 centuries.


The poem "The Death of Euclid" was inspired by the magnitude of Euclid's impact as a teacher, the exotic locale in which he lived and worked, and the scarcity of information about his life, which allowed the poet to give free reign to her imagination.  The poem first appeared in Ode to Numbers by Sarah Glaz (Antrim House, 2017).


The imagery in the collage reflects, as well as extends, the imagery of the poem. The map section of Alexandria in the center is cut into the outline of the "Windmill diagram" used by Euclid in The Elements to prove the Pythagorean Theorem. The boat across the center of the map fragment, is crewed by a host of crocodiles. This is a detail from a painting by Leonora Carrington entitled "How Doth the Little Crocodile," after a poem from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which was authored by Lewis Carroll. Although best known for his Alice stories, Carroll spent his life primarily as a mathematician. Floating in space in the upper left corner, is the Space Telescope which bears Euclid's name; as generations far beyond his lifetime use his work to advance our understanding of mathematics in the universe. For more details, see Mark's Dissecting The Death of Euclid.

Many thanks to Kevin Marinelli for the technical expertise with which he formatted the poem-collage pair to Bridges Art Exhibit specifications.

The Death of Euclid poem-collage
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