The Legacy of Second Best

Americans are obsessed with being the best.

Sometimes, believing we must be perfect, we avoid making a first effort. Instead of simply squeezing out the extent of our capabilities and being content with the results, we let a dream die and live with regret.

Eratosthenes was different.

He was a third-century BC mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and, well, a lot of things. To put it lightly, he was a tinkerer. He pursued whatever caught his fancy from moment to moment, quenching his ravenous curiosity and contributing to a variety of fields.

As the third head of the infamous Library of Alexandria, Eratosthenes developed a reputation among his peers which earned him the nickname “Beta.”

His contemporaries considered it humorous he was second best in a lot of things instead of truly great at one.

One of the many things he set out to do was estimate the circumference of the Earth.  Knowing of a well in a town relatively close by where the sun’s rays shined straight down on a specific day every year, Eratosthenes decided to measure the angle of the sun’s rays in Alexandria and see how many times it could be divided into 360, the number of degrees in a circle, as we all know.

He reasoned that, if he could accurately determine the distance between Swenet (modern-day Aswan) and Alexandria, then multiply it by the answer to his aforementioned division equation, he could estimate the distance around the planet.

He hired a pacer—someone trained to take steps so precisely the difference between them was exact—to walk the distance. He used the final number to calculate an estimate of 24,700 miles.  (He was off by around 200 miles, a mere 0.8%.)

Having determined the length, and thinking most of the land mass had been mapped already, he speculated the rest was an ocean.

With this in mind, he theorized if one were to sail west, he would eventually find the edge of the easternmost lands. Some 1600 years later, when the Renaissance reignited the flame of interest in Ancient Greece, an Italian by the name of Christopher Columbus used this idea as the basis for a voyage from Spain in search of a route to India.

By following his own ideals, Eratosthenes paved the way for Western Europe to settle the Americas.

Sure, there are greater writers (Archimedes) and philosophers (Epicurus) from the same period, but none of them can be said to have influenced the movement of millions across the vast Atlantic Ocean.

What could your legacy be if you’d accept being second best?


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