Saturday, 9 October 2010
thinking on solid ground_arranging arguments topologically
The Platonic solids feature prominently in the philosophy of Plato for whom they are named. Plato wrote about them in the dialogue Timaeus c.360 B.C. in which he associated each of the four classical elements (earth, air, water, and fire) with a regular solid. Earth was associated with the cube, air with the octahedron, water with the icosahedron, and fire with the tetrahedron. There was intuitive justification for these associations: the heat of fire feels sharp and stabbing (like little tetrahedra). Air is made of the octahedron; its minuscule components are so smooth that one can barely feel it. Water, the icosahedron, flows out of one's hand when picked up, as if it is made of tiny little balls. By contrast, a highly un-spherical solid, the hexahedron (cube) represents earth. These clumsy little solids cause dirt to crumble and break when picked up, in stark difference to the smooth flow of water. Moreover, the solidity of the Earth was believed to be due to the fact that the cube is the only regular solid that tesselates Euclidean space. The fifth Platonic solid, the dodecahedron, Plato obscurely remarks, "...the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven". Aristotle added a fifth element, aithêr (aether in Latin, "ether" in English) and postulated that the heavens were made of this element, but he had no interest in matching it with Plato's fifth solid.