Geometry is a discipline which has long been subject to mathematical fashions of the ages. In classical Greece, Euclid’s elements (Euclid pictured above) with their logical axiomatic base established the subject as the pinnacle on the “great mountain of Truth” that all other disciplines could but hope to scale. However the status of the subject fell greatly from such heights and by the late 18th century it was no longer a fashionable branch to study. The revival of interest in geometry was led by a group of French mathematicians at the start of the 1800s with their work on projective geometry. This then paved the way for the later development of non-Euclidean geometry and led to deep philosophical questions as to geometry’s links with reality and indeed just what exactly geometry was.
Projective geometry is the study of geometrical properties unchanged by projection. It strips away distinctions between conics, angles, distance and parallelism to create a geometry more fundamental than Euclidean geometry. For example the diagram below shows how an ellipse has been projected onto a circle. The ellipse and the circle are therefore projectively equivalent which means that projective results in the circle are also true in ellipses (and other conics).
Projective geometry can be understood in terms of rays of light emanating from a point. In the diagram above, the triangle IJK drawn on the glass screen would be projected to triangle LNO on the ground. This projection does not preserve either angles or side lengths – so the triangle on the ground will have different sized angles and sides to that on the screen. This may seem a little strange – after all we tend to think in terms of angles and sides in geometry, however in projective geometry distinctions about angles and lengths are stripped away (however something called the cross-ratio is still preserved).
We can see in the image above that a projection from the point E creates similar shapes when the 2 planes containing IJKL and ABCD are parallel. Therefore the Euclidean geometrical study of similar shapes can be thought of as a subset of plane positions in projective geometry.
Taking this idea further we can see that congruent shapes can be achieved if we have the centre of projection, E, “sent to infinity:” In projective geometry, parallel lines do indeed meet – at this point at infinity. Therefore with the point E sent to infinity we have a projection above yielding congruent shapes.
Projective geometry can be used with conics to associate every point (pole) with a line (polar), and vice versa. For example the point A had the associated red line, d. To find this we draw the 2 tangents from A to the conic. We then join the 2 points of intersection between B and C. This principle of duality allowed new theorems to be discovered simply by interchanging points and lines.
An example of both the symmetrical attractiveness and the mathematical potential for duality was first provided by Brianchon. In 1806 he used duality to discover the dual theorem of Pascal’s Theorem – simply by interchanging points and lines. Rarely can a mathematical discovery have been both so (mechanically) easy and yet so profoundly
Poncelet was another French pioneer of projective geometry who used the idea of points and lines being “sent to infinity” to yield some remarkable results when used as a tool for mathematical proof.
Another version of Pascal’s Theorem:
Poncelet claimed he could prove Pascal’s theorem (shown above) where 6 points on a conic section joined to make a hexagon have a common line. He did this by sending the line GH to infinity. To understand this we can note that the previous point of intersection G of lines AB’ and A’B is now at infinity, which means that AB’ and A’B will now be parallel. This means that H being at infinity also creates the 2 parallel lines AC’. Poncelet now argued that because we could prove through geometrical means that B’C and BC’ were also parallel, that this was consistent with the line HI also being at infinity. Therefore by proving the specific case in a circle where line GHI has been sent to infinity he argued that we could prove using projective geometry the general case of Pascal’s theorem in any conic .
Pascal’s Theorem with intersections at infinity:
This branch of mathematics developed quickly in the early 1800s, sparking new interest in geometry and leading to a heated debate about whether geometry should retain its “pure” Euclidean roots of diagrammatic proof, or if it was best understood through algebra. The use of points and lines at infinity marked a shift away from geometry representing “reality” as understood from a Euclidean perspective, and by the late 1800s Beltrami, Poincare and others were able to incorporate the ideas of projective geometry and lines at infinity to provide their Euclidean models of non-Euclidean space. The development of projective geometry demonstrated how a small change of perspective could have profound consequences.