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?


Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Myths of Science

21 responses to “AAARRRRRRRRGGGGGHHH!!!!!

  1. Pingback: AAARRRRRRRRGGGGGHHH!!!!! | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Sniffnoy

    Spelling nitpick (which I point out because it actually confused me for a few moments): You mean “critique”, not “critic”.

  3. To be fair, Crease does say “was reputed to have…” – repetition of the story is misleading, of course, but he did at least not claim it as “recorded fact”

  4. The NYT article is not by Crease, who did organize the poll at PhysicsWorld, but by science writer George Johnson, who later did write a book about these “Top 10” experiments.

    As everyone knows that the Pisa Leaning Tower Story never is presented according to the state of art of historians’ knowledge, I do not see a reason to be that upset.

  5. Many thanks for the clarifications and background history Thony! My only gripe is that the NYT is cited as an “esteemed publication” ! Its coverage of art historical and medical research news (the two topics I am most familiar with) are generalistic at best, factually flawed at worst! Beware!


  6. Thony, I am sure the NYTimes has published equally stupid reports about Politics, History, … ____, fill in the blank with your favorite subjects.

  7. Zachary Nowak

    How irritating. I wonder how frequently newspapers are either a) lazy, or b) tempted by the small sin of not letting the truth get in the way of a great story. It has such great narrative appeal, and reinforces everything we learned in grammar school–perfect!

  8. Peter R.

    When this article first appeared, I had the students in my history of science course write responses to George Johnson, explaining how terrible his discussion of Galileo was. I sent some of the best letters to Johnson, but never heard back.

  9. Pingback: Being wrong « Maxwell's Demon

  10. buermann

    Excellent griping, but I daresay the idea that this is something “they would never allow their journalist to do in an article on politics or economics” is a bit far fetched.

  11. Question on various commentators. Why do you all have such a negative opinion of the NY Times? Is it really that bad? ;))

  12. Jim Cliborn

    Yes, things are indeed very bad here with respect to a veracity in reporting anything. Politics and secret agendas have taken over all media at all levels. At the moment we are busily crucifying all of our climate scientists over their global warming studies and our biologists over evolution science. It used to be “If it bleeds, it leads” now it’s “If it threatens our bottom line or our religious beliefs we must crush the messengers of doom.” It’s rare to find a blog like yours that will attempt to chart the actual course of development as best you can given the mists of history. Keep up the effort, it is appreciated!

  13. Jim Cliborn

    So did Galileo even start the Pisa ball dropping meme, perhaps as a Gedankenexperiment? Or was this a fabrication by some later science popularizer?

  14. Per Bragstad

    Who is to blame for lack of knowledge of the renaissance scientist Galileo? Certainly not the press. They have reveiled that (american?) physicists indeed have negligible knowledge about obscure medieval scientists/philosophers like most people. Science history was just a fill-in when I was studying fifty years ago, no in-depth disciplin (Singer). The myths will certainly live on because teachers will continue to use them and hopefully get many youngsters interested in nature science. Though Galileo never uttered “Eppur si muove”, I still find the phrase in text books today.

  15. José

    Very Interesting. I always like to read your blog just because of this type of comment. I have to teach physics and I have always been interested in the history of science. What would be more helpful still is if you give some references to work that are known in your field but not necessarily to others.

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