In about 276 BC, there was born in the town of Cyrene a man named Eratosthenes who made a surprisingly accurate measurement of the circumference of the Earth.
By comparing the noon shadow in midsummer between Syene and Alexandria, he gave the circumference of the Earth as 250 000 stadia, the distance to the sun as 804 000 000 stadia and the distance to the Moon as 780 000 stadia.
(How big is a stadium? Well, you could ask the Sharks. In the Roman days, it was about 185 metres.)
He measured the tilt of the Earth's axis with great accuracy obtaining the value of 23º 51' 15", and compiled a star catalogue containing 675 stars.
Erat died around 197 BC. Since then, a lot has happened.
The place of his birth was conquered by all and sundry until the Italians laid claim to the land after the discovery of oil during World War II. After defeating the Italians, Britain, France and the United States maintained de facto control. The US spent US$100 million on developing its first air base on the continent, the Wheelus airfield, on the outskirts of the capital city.
With their blessings, King Idris I proclaimed the land's formal independence on December 24, 1951.
Ruth First, even then one of South Africa's foremost journalists, said Erat's homeland was “perhaps the poorest country in the world.”
“The battles of World War II had devastated what infrastructure had been built and disrupted the economic life of even the Bedouin communities…” she wrote. “There had been virtually no education system capable of preparing men for government and administrative service."
Meanwhile, during the Korean War, Wheelus was used by the US Strategic Air Command, later becoming a primary training ground for NATO forces. For the West, this was the only source of oil unaffected by the long-term closure of the Suez Canal.
By 1967, US private investment in the country stood at US$456 million, the second highest after South Africa.
King Idris presided over 11 corrupt governments until September 1, 1969 when a group of army officers took control, ousting him.
America was initially not unhappy with this. The young Colonel leading the force was an avowed anti-communist. The CIA reportedly thought of him as "America's man".
Except a few days later the new government announced it would not renew the foreign base agreements and that 51% of foreign banks would be nationalised.
In 1973, it nationalised 51% of all oil companies, including the subsidiaries of Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, and Shell. It also doubled the price of its crude oil.
In 1974, it completely nationalised the three US oil companies and announced an oil embargo of the US, sparking the oil crisis.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Chrysler no longer makes Valiants. And why the United States hates Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi with a passion.
In 1986, terrorists bombed a disco in West Berlin frequented by US military. Ronald Reagan blamed Libya and bombed Tripoli and Benghazi, killing Qaddafi's daughter. Evidence linking the Libyans to the blast has never been presented.
In 1988, Pan Am flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. The US again accused Libya even though US experts and the Israeli government fingered Iran and Syria instead. Libya's willingness to have the suspects tried in a neutral country was rejected. It took 10 years and a peace deal brokered by then SA president Nelson Mandela for the Lockerbie issue to be resolved.
The town of Cyrene is today called Shabat. Syene is now Aswan in Egypt. Qaddafi is likely to fall and will soon be forgotten. But the "Sieve" of Eratosthenes — a method for calculating prime numbers — is still used by scientists today.