The title of this post is the sound of me screaming in a state of total frustration and despair. Who or what has reduced me to this state of mental despondency? You might well ask and the answer is America’s flag ship daily newspaper The New York Times. Somebody, who shall remain nameless, linked on Twitter to an edition of the NY Times from 2002 because of an article entitled Here They Are, Science’s 10 Most Beautiful Experiments. This list is the result of Robert P. Crease polling physicists on their favourite historical experiments. It should be pointed out that Crease is an acknowledged historian of modern physics. So what was it in this article that so enraged me? In second place in the polls greatest experimental historical hits we find the following:
Galileo’s experiment on falling objects
In the late 1500’s, everyone knew that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones. After all, Aristotle had said so. That an ancient Greek scholar still held such sway was a sign of how far science had declined during the dark ages.
Galileo Galilei, who held a chair in mathematics at the University of Pisa, was impudent enough to question the common knowledge. The story has become part of the folklore of science: he is reputed to have dropped two different weights from the town’s Leaning Tower showing that they landed at the same time. His challenges to Aristotle may have cost Galileo his job, but he had demonstrated the importance of taking nature, not human authority, as the final arbiter in matters of science. (Ranking: 2)
So what’s wrong with these paragraphs? It would be simpler to ask what’s right with them, nothing! We’ll just go through statement for statement, claim for claim. In the late 1500s many people knew that Aristotle’s laws of fall were anything but correct. They had been questioned by scholars since at least the sixth century CE when the Greek scholar John Philoponus subjected Aristotle’s theory of motion to a penetrating critique. A critique that was known to and even quoted by Galileo. In the fourteenth century CE the Oxford Calculatores had already proved the mean speed theory the corner stone of the so-called Galilean laws of fall. Work that was distributed and read throughout Europe and was also known to Galileo. In terms of the laws of motion Aristotle’s authority had been questioned and rejected by European scholars for more than one thousand years before Galileo considered the subject. Work of which Galileo was totally aware.
Galileo’s work on the laws of motion was in no way impudent but a continuation of work already done in the sixteenth century by leading mathematical researchers such as Tartaglia and Giambattista Benedetti. The latter having already published the so-called Galilean laws of fall in the 1550s, work of which Galileo was well aware.
That Galileo dropped balls from the Tower of Pisa is a complete myth and all the more embarrassing for the claim here that it is the second most beautiful experiment is the fact that the experiment was actually carried out, as is well documented, by both Philoponus in the sixth century and by Simon Stevin from the church tower in Delft in 1586!
Far from costing Galileo his job, his work in Pisa led to his being appointed to the much better paid chair of mathematics in Padua a much more renowned university.
Not for the first time I have to ask why a publication as esteemed as the NY Times could publish such a steaming heap of festering dodo dung, something they would never allow their journalist to do in an article on politics or economics for example. Or why a historian as respected as Robert P Crease could sanction its being published in his name?