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Gauss's geodesy and the axiom of parallels


It is a myth that Gauss measured a certain large triangle specifically to determine its angle sum; he did so in order to link his triangulation of Hanover with contiguous ones. The sum of the angles differed from 180° by less than two thirds of a second; he is known to have mentioned in conversation that this constituted an approximate verification of the axiom of parallels (which he regarded as an empirical matter because his studies of hyperbolic trigonometry had led him to recognize the possibility of logical alternatives to Kant and Euclid). However, he never doubted Euclidean geometry in his geodetic work. On the contrary, he continually used 180° angle sums as a powerful check for observational errors, which helped him to achieve standards of precision equivalent to today's. Nor did he ever plan an empirical investigation of the geometrical structure of space.

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Communicated by M. Kline

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Breitenberger, E. Gauss's geodesy and the axiom of parallels. Arch. Rational Mech. 31, 273–289 (1984).

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