Pons asinorum

The pons asinorum in Byrne's edition of the Elements showing part of Euclid's proof.

In geometry, the statement that the angles opposite the equal sides of an isosceles triangle are themselves equal is known as the pons asinorum (Latin pronunciation: [ˈpons asiˈnoːrʊm]; English /ˈpɒnz ˌæsˈnɔərəm/ PONZ-ass-i-NOR-(r)əm), Latin for "bridge of donkeys". This statement is Proposition 5 of Book 1 in Euclid's Elements, and is also known as the isosceles triangle theorem. Its converse is also true: if two angles of a triangle are equal, then the sides opposite them are also equal.

The name of this statement is also used metaphorically for a problem or challenge which will separate the sure of mind from the simple, the fleet thinker from the slow, the determined from the dallier; to represent a critical test of ability or understanding.[1]'


Proclus' proof
Euclid's Elements Book 1 proposition 5; the pons asinorum

Euclid and Proclus

Euclid's statement of the pons asinorum includes a second conclusion that if the equal sides of the triangle are extended below the base, then the angles between the extensions and the base are also equal. Euclid's proof involves drawing auxiliary lines to these extensions. But, as Euclid's commentator Proclus points out, Euclid never uses the second conclusion and his proof can be simplified somewhat by drawing the auxiliary lines to the sides of the triangle instead, the rest of the proof proceeding in more or less the same way. There has been much speculation and debate as to why, given that it makes the proof more complicated, Euclid added the second conclusion to the theorem. One plausible explanation, given by Proclus, is that the second conclusion can be used in possible objections to the proofs of later propositions where Euclid does not cover every case.[2] The proof relies heavily on what is today called side-angle-side, the previous proposition in the Elements.

Proclus' variation of Euclid's proof proceeds as follows:[3] Let ABC be an isosceles triangle with AB and AC being the equal sides. Pick an arbitrary point D on side AB and construct E on AC so that AD=AE. Draw the lines BE, DC and DE. Consider the triangles BAE and CAD; BA=CA, AE=AD, and angle A is equal to itself, so by side-angle-side, the triangles are congruent and corresponding sides and angles are equal. Therefore angle ABE = angle ACD, angle ADC = angle AEB, and BE=CD. Since AB=AC and AD=AE, BD=CE by subtraction of equal parts. Now consider the triangles DBE and ECD; BD=CE, BE=CD, and angle DBE = angle ECD have just been shown, so applying side-angle-side again, the triangles are congruent. Therefore angle BDE = angle CED and angle BED = angle CDE. Since angle BDE = angle CED and angle CDE = angle BED, angle BDC = angle CEB by subtraction of equal parts. Consider a third pair of triangles, BDC and CEB; DB=EC, DC=EB, and angle BDC = angle CEB, so applying side-angle-side a third time, the triangles are congruent. In particular, angle CBD = BCE, which was to be proved.


Proclus gives a much shorter proof attributed to Pappus of Alexandria. This is not only simpler but it requires no additional construction at all. The method of proof is to apply side-angle-side to the triangle and its mirror image. More modern authors, in imitation of the method of proof given for the previous proposition have described this as picking up the triangle, turning it over and laying it down upon itself.[4] This method is lampooned by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in Euclid and his Modern Rivals, calling it an "Irish bull" because it apparently requires the triangle to be in two places at once.[5]

The proof is as follows:[6] Let ABC be an isosceles triangle with AB and AC being the equal sides. Consider the triangles ABC and ACB, where ACB is considered a second triangle with vertices A, C and B corresponding respectively to A, B and C in the original triangle. Angle A is equal to itself, AB=AC and AC=AB, so by side-angle-side, triangles ABC and ACB are congruent. In particular angle B = angle C.[7]


A textbook proof

A standard textbook method is to construct the bisector of the angle at A.[8] This is simpler than Euclid's proof, but Euclid does not present the construction of an angle bisector until proposition 9. So the order of presentation of the Euclid's propositions would have to be changed to avoid the possibility of circular reasoning.

The proof proceeds as follows:[9] As before, let the triangle be ABC with AB = AC. Construct the angle bisector of angle BAC and extend it to meet BC at X. AB = AC and AX is equal to itself. Furthermore angle BAX = angle CAX, so, applying side-angle-side, BAX and CAX are congruent. It follows that the angles at B and C are equal.

Legendre uses a similar construction in Éléments de géométrie, but taking X to be the midpoint of BC.[10] The proof is similar but side-side-side must be used instead of side-angle-side, and side-side-side is not given by Euclid until later in the Elements.

In inner product spaces

The isosceles triangle theorem holds in inner product spaces over the real or complex numbers. In such spaces, it takes a form that says of vectors x, y, and z that if[11]




where θ is the angle between the two vectors, the conclusion of this inner product space form of the theorem is equivalent to the statement about equality of angles.

Etymology and related terms

Another medieval term for the pons asinorum was Elefuga which, according to Roger Bacon, comes from Greek elegia misery, and fuga Latin for flight, that is "flight of the wretches". Though this etymology is dubious, it is echoed in Chaucer's use of the term "flemyng of wreches" for the theorem.[12]

There are two possible explanations for the name pons asinorum, the simplest being that the diagram used resembles an actual bridge. But the more popular explanation is that it is the first real test in the Elements of the intelligence of the reader and functions as a "bridge" to the harder propositions that follow.[13] Gauss supposedly once espoused a similar belief in the necessity of immediately understanding Euler's identity as a benchmark pursuant to becoming a first-class mathematician.[14]

Similarly, the name Dulcarnon is given to the 47th proposition of Book I of Euclid, better known as the Pythagorean theorem, after the Arabic Dhū 'l qarnain ذُو ٱلْقَرْنَيْن, meaning "the owner of the two horns", because diagrams of the theorem showed two smaller squares like horns at the top of the figure. The term is also used as a metaphor for a dilemma.[12] The theorem was also sometimes called "the Windmill" for similar reasons.[15]

Metaphorical usage

Uses of the pons asinorum as a metaphor include:


  1. Pons asinorum - Definition and More from the Free Merriam
  2. Heath pp. 251–255
  3. Following Proclus p. 53
  4. For example F. Cuthbertson Primer of geometry (1876 Oxford) p. 7
  5. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Euclid and his Modern Rivals Act I Scene II §6
  6. Following Proclus p. 54
  7. Heath p. 254 for section
  8. For example J.M. Wilson Elementary geometry (1878 Oxford) p. 20
  9. Following Wilson
  10. A. M. Legendre Éléments de géométrie (1876 Libr. de Firmin-Didot et Cie) p. 14
  11. J. R. Retherford, Hilbert Space, Cambridge University Press, 1993, page 27.
  12. 1 2 3 4 A. F. West & H. D. Thompson "On Dulcarnon, Elefuga And Pons Asinorum as Fanciful Names For Geometrical Propositions" The Princeton University bulletin Vol. 3 No. 4 (1891) p. 84
  13. D.E. Smith History of Mathematics (1958 Dover) p. 284
  14. Derbyshire, John (2003). Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics. 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington D.C. 20001: Joseph Henry Press. p. 202. ISBN 0-309-08549-7.
  15. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Euclid and his Modern Rivals Act I Scene II §1
  16. W.E. Aytoun (Ed.) The poetical works of Thomas Campbell (1864, Little, Brown) p. 385 Google Books
  17. John Stuart Mill Principles of Political Economy (1866: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer) Book 2, Chapter 16, p. 261
  18. Aasinsilta on laiskurin apuneuvo | Yle Uutiset | yle.fi

External links

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