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Does Trying to Square a Circle Cause an Illness?

Date: 03/14/2006 at 20:47:21
From: Caitlin
Subject: illness on trying to square a circle

People thought that trying to square a circle was an illness.  What 
was that illness called?

Date: 03/14/2006 at 22:34:15
From: Doctor Peterson
Subject: Re: illness on trying to square a circle

Hi, Caitlin.

I think your statement is a little inaccurate; no one, to my 
knowledge, actually thought it WAS an illness.  Here is the best 
source I know for the real story: 

This says

  The popularity of the problem continued and there are many amusing
  stories told by De Morgan on this topic in his book Budget of
  Paradoxes which was edited and published by his wife in 1872, the
  year after his death.  De Morgan suggests that St Vitus be made the
  patron saint of circle-squarers.  This is a reference to St Vitus'
  dance, a wild leaping dance in which people screamed and shouted
  and which led to a kind of mass hysteria.  De Morgan also suggested
  the term 'morbus cyclometricus' as being the 'circle squaring

Your source seems to be one of many sites I found that have a slightly
twisted version of the story: 

  29) A long time ago people thought there was an illness attached
  to trying to 'square a circle' called Morbus Cyclometricus.

Do you see the difference? The reality is not that "people thought
there was" such a illness, but just that one person facetiously
described it as such!

By the way, to answer a question like this, all you have to do is take
the key words of your question and feed them to

  square circle illness

Try it: you'll find where your teacher probably got the question, as
well as the popular version of the answer.  Then a search for "morbus
cyclometricus" gets you the real story.  That's often a good way to do
research: do the obvious search first just to gather better search
words, and then search for the best sources using the better
understanding you've picked up in the first search.

If you have any further questions, feel free to write back.

- Doctor Peterson, The Math Forum 
Associated Topics:
High School Euclidean/Plane Geometry
High School History/Biography

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