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Eratosthenes experiment to find the circumference of the Earth is usually said to be performed on the Zero Shadow Day at Syene. Is it necessary? Can this experiment be performed on any day for two locations lying on almost same longitude?

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It's not necessary that there be zero shadow. The altitude $\alpha$ of an object when it crosses the local meridian on the celestial sphere is $\alpha = \delta + 90^\circ - \lambda$, where $\delta$ is the object's declination and $\lambda$ is the latitude of the observation point. This means that if you carefully measure the altitude of the same object at meridian crossing from two separate locations, and find altitudes $\alpha_1$ and $\alpha_2$, then the difference between these altitudes is $$ \alpha_2 - \alpha_1 = \delta + 90^\circ - \lambda_2 - (\delta + 90^\circ - \lambda_1) = \lambda_1 - \lambda_2. $$ Thus, the difference in the measured altitudes is equal to the difference in latitude between the two locations. By measuring the distance between these locations on the Earth's surface, one can then infer the circumference of the Earth.

The condition that there be "zero shadow" simply means that one of $\alpha_1$ or $\alpha_2$ is equal to 90° (i.e, the sun is at the zenith.) Effectively, it allows you to know what one of the angles is without physically measuring the height of your gnomon and the length of its shadow. But so long as you're willing to measure the solar altitude in two different locations, it is not necessary that the sun be at the zenith.

Note that this method can be used to find the difference in latitude between any two points on the Earth, so long as the object's declination doesn't shift significantly between the meridian crossings at the two points. The reason it's helpful to have the observations at two points on the same longitude line is that it leads to a simple relation between the great-circle distance between the points, the difference in latitude, and the radius of the Earth. If the observation points aren't on the same line of longitude, then you need to know the difference in longitude as well to perform this experiment; and Eratosthenes didn't have Harrison's chronometer at hand.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer, however my concern is regarding the "Zero Shadow Day" and not if the method will work on same longitude or not. Can you please share your views on it. Is it necessary that one of the sticks involved should have zero shadow. $\endgroup$ – Chetan Waghela Oct 28 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ @ChetanWaghela: I guess I didn't make that explicit, did I? Edited to make it clearer; see my new second paragraph. $\endgroup$ – Michael Seifert Oct 28 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Seifert Elaborating on your answer: Eratosthenes didn't know how close the two points he used were to being on the same meridian. He could dead reckon it, but he had no accurate way of finding compass directions. As you indicated he could actually have used points that weren't on the same meridian, but that would have put in an extra complication. $\endgroup$ – stretch Oct 29 at 2:05
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Zero shadow isn't required. Eratosthenes could have arranged with someone to measure the shadow of a stick, any stick, at local apparent noon, on any given day, in some location known to be due north or south of the location where Eratosthenes would be doing the same thing. The someone would then report to him the length of the shadow and the height of the stick. The ratio of shadow to stick is the tangent of the angle north or south of the GP of the sun for the location of the measurement. It would be equal to the latitude if the day of the measurement was one of the equinoxes, but all Eratosthenes needs is the difference in their latitudes, which he can get on any given day.

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  • $\begingroup$ What does GP stand for? $\endgroup$ – Mike G Oct 28 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ GP is geographical position, the spot on the earth the celestial body is directly above. Sorry: I thought it was a common abbreviation. $\endgroup$ – stretch Oct 29 at 2:07

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