In geometry, Descartes’ theorem states that for every four kissing, or mutually tangent, circles, the radii of the circles satisfy a certain quadratic equation. By solving this equation, one can construct a fourth circle tangent to three given, mutually tangent circles. The theorem is named after René Descartes, who stated it in 1643.
Descartes’ theorem was rediscovered independently in 1826 by Jakob Steiner, in 1842 by Philip Beecroft, and again in 1936 by Frederick Soddy. Soddy published his findings in the scientific journal Nature as a poem, The Kiss Precise, of which the first two stanzas are reproduced below. The first stanza describes Soddy’s circles, whereas the second stanza gives Descartes’ theorem. In Soddy’s poem, two circles are said to “kiss” if they are tangent, whereas the term “bend” refers to the curvature k of the circle.
For pairs of lips to kiss maybe
Involves no trigonometry.
‘Tis not so when four circles kiss
Each one the other three.
To bring this off the four must be
As three in one or one in three.
If one in three, beyond a doubt
Each gets three kisses from without.
If three in one, then is that one
Thrice kissed internally.
Four circles to the kissing come.
The smaller are the benter.
The bend is just the inverse of
The distance from the center.
Though their intrigue left Euclid dumb
There’s now no need for rule of thumb.
Since zero bend’s a dead straight line
And concave bends have minus sign,
The sum of the squares of all four bends
Is half the square of their sum.