Worlds of David Darling
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trisecting an angle




Whereas bisecting an angle could hardly be simpler, splitting an angle in three equal parts with compasses and straightedge alone is impossible, except in a few special cases such as when the angle happens to be 90°. Trisecting an arbitrary angle can be done if you cheat by using a measuring ruler instead of a plain straightedge, or even if you draw just two marks on the straightedge, but not if you play by the rules and the straightedge is completely blank. The Greeks put a huge effort into the problem but couldn't crack it. In fact, the question of whether trisection could ever be done in the general case remained open until 1837, when it was finally shown to be impossible by Pierre Wantzel, a 23-year-old French mathematician. Why is it impossible? Wantzel showed that the two problems of trisecting an angle and of solving a cubic equation are equivalent. Moreover, he showed that only a very few cubic equations can be solved using the straightedge-and-compass method. He thus deduced that most angles cannot be trisected.


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