The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXIX

One of the most well known popular stories told about Galileo is how he dropped balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to disprove the Aristotelian hypothesis that balls of different weights would fall at different speeds; the heavier ball falling faster. This event probably never happened but it is related as a prelude to his brilliant experiments with balls and inclined planes, which he carried out to determine empirically the correct laws of fall and which really did take place and for which he is justifiably renowned as an experimentalist. What is very rarely admitted is that the investigation of the laws of fall had had a several-hundred-year history before Galileo even considered the problem, a history of which Galileo was well aware.

We saw in the last episode that John Philoponus had actually criticised Aristotle’s concept of fall in the sixth century and had even carried out the ball drop experiment. However, unlike his impulse concept for projectile motion, which was taken up by Islamic scholars and passed on by them into the European Middle Ages, his correct criticism of Aristotle’s fall theory appears not to have been taken up by later thinkers.

As far as we know the first people, after Philoponus, to challenge Aristotle’s concept was the so-called Oxford Calculatores.


Merton College in 1865 Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was a group of fourteenth-century, Aristotelian scholars at Merton College Oxford, who set about quantifying various theory of nature. These men–Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1300–1349), William of Heytesbury (c. 1313–c. 1372), Richard Swineshead (fl. c. 1340–1354) and John Dumbleton (c. 1310–c. 1349)–studied mechanics distinguishing between kinematics and dynamics, emphasising the former and investigating instantaneous velocity. They were the first to formulate the mean speed theorem, an achievement usually accredited to Galileo. The mean speed theorem states that a uniformly accelerated body, starting from rest, travels the same distance as a body with uniform speed, whose speed in half the final velocity of the accelerated body. The theory lies at the heart of the laws of fall.

The work of the Oxford Calculatores was quickly diffused throughout Europe and Nicole Oresme (c. 1320–1382), one of the so-called Parisian physicists,


Portrait of Nicole Oresme: Miniature from Oresme’s Traité de l’espère, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France, fonds français 565, fol. 1r. Source: Wikimedia Commons

and Giovanni di Casali (c. 1320–after 1374) both produced graphical representation of the theory.


Oresme’s geometric verification of the Oxford Calculators’ Merton Rule of uniform acceleration, or mean speed theorem. Source: Wikimedia Commons

We saw in the last episode how Tartaglia applied mathematics to the problem of projectile motion and now we turn to a man, who for a time was a student of Tartaglia, Giambattista Benedetti (1530–1590). Like others before him Bendetti turned his attention to Aristotle’s concept of fall and wrote and published in total three works on the subject that went a long way towards the theory that Galileo would eventually publish. In his Resolutio omnium Euclidis problematum (1553) and his Demonstratio proportionum motuum localium (1554) he argued that speed is dependent not on weight but specific gravity and that two objects of the same material but different weights would fall at the same speed.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, in a vacuum, objects of different material would fall at different speed. Benedetti brought an early version of the thought experiment, usually attributed to Galileo, of viewing two bodies falling separately or conjoined, in his case by a cord.  Galileo considered a roof tile falling complete and then broken into two.

In a second edition of the Demonstratio (1554) he addressed surface area and resistance of the medium through which the objects are falling. He repeated his theories in his Demonstratio proportionum motuum localium (1554), where he explains his theories with respect to the theory of impetus. We know that Galileo had read his Benedetti and his own initial theories on the topic, in his unpublished De Motu, were very similar.

In the newly established United Provinces (The Netherlands) Simon Stevin (1548–1620) carried out a lot of work applying mathematics to various areas of physics. However in our contexts more interesting were his experiments in 1586, where he actually dropped lead balls of different weights from the thirty-foot-high church tower in Delft and determined empirically that they fell at the same speed, arriving at the ground at the same time.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some people think that because Stevin only wrote and published in Dutch that his mathematical physics remained largely unknown. However, his complete works published initially in Dutch were translated into both French and Latin, the latter translation being carried out by Willebrord Snell. As a result his work was well known in France, the major centre for mathematical physics in the seventeenth century.

In Italy the Dominican priest Domingo de Soto (1494–1560) correctly stated that a body falls with a constant, uniform acceleration. In his Opus novum, De Proportionibus numerorum, motuum, ponderum, sonorum, aliarumque rerum mensurandarum. Item de aliza regula (1570) Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) demonstrates that two balls of different sizes will fall from a great height in the same time. The humanist poet and historian, Benedetto Varchi (c. 1502–1565) in 1544 and Giuseppe Moletti (1531–1588), Galileo’s predecessor as professor of mathematics in Padua, in 1576 both reported that bodies of different weights fall at the same speed in contradiction to Aristotle, as did Jacopo Mazzoni (1548–1598), a philosopher at Padua and friend of Galileo, in 1597. However none of them explained how they arrived at their conclusions.

Of particular relevance to Galileo is the De motu gravium et levium of Girolamo Borro (1512–1592) one of Galileo’s teachers in Pisa. In a dispute with his colleague Francesco Buonamici (1533–1603), another Pisan professor, Borro carried out experiments in which he threw objects of different material and the same weights out of a high window to test Aristotle’s theory, which he describes in his book. Borro’s work is known to have had a strong influence on Galileo’s early work in this area.

When Galileo started his own extensive investigations into the problem of fall in the late sixteenth century he was tapping into an extensive stream of previous work on the subject of which he was well aware and which to some extent had already done much of the heavy lifting. This raises the question as to what extent Galileo deserves his reputation as the man, who solved the problem of fall.


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

We saw in the last episode that his much praised Dialogo, his magnum opus on the heliocentricity contra geocentricity debate, not only contributed nothing new of substance to that debate but because of his insistence on retaining the Platonic axioms, his total rejection of the work of both Tycho Brahe and Kepler and his rejection of the strong empirical evidence for the supralunar nature of comets he actually lagged far behind the current developments in that debate. The result was that the Dialogo could be regarded as superfluous to the astronomical system debate. Can the same be said of the contribution of the Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences) (1638) to the debate on motion? The categorical answer is no; the Discorsi is a very important contribution to that debate and Galileo deserves his reputation as a mathematical physicist that this book gave him.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

What did Galileo contribute to the debate that was new? It not so much that he contributed much new to the debate but that he gave the debate the solid empirical and mathematical foundation, which it had lacked up till this point. Dropping weights from heights to examine the laws of fall suffers from various problems. It is extremely difficult to ensure that the object are both released at the same time, it is equally difficult to determine if they actually hit the ground at the same time and the whole process is so fast, that given the possibilities available at the time, it was impossible to measure the time taken for the fall. All of the previous experiments of Stevin et al were at best approximations and not really empirical proofs in a strict scientific sense. Galileo supplied the necessary empirical certainty.

Galileo didn’t drop balls he rolled them down a smooth, wooden channel in an inclined plane that had been oiled to remove friction. He argued by analogy the results that he achieved by slowing down the acceleration by using an inclined plane were equivalent to those that would be obtained by dropping the balls vertically. Argument by analogy is of course not strict scientific proof but is an often used part of the scientific method that has often, as in this case, led to important new discoveries and results.  He released one ball at a time and timed them separately thus eliminating the synchronicity problem. Also, he was able with a water clock to time the balls with sufficient accuracy to make the necessary mathematical calculations. He put the laws of falls on a sound empirical and mathematical footing. One should also not neglect the fact that Galileo’s undoubtable talent as a polemicist made the content of the Discorsi available in a way that was far more accessible than anything that had preceded it.


Galileo’s demonstration of the law of the space traversed in case of uniformly varied motion. It is the same demonstration that Oresme had made centuries earlier. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For those, who like to believe that Catholics and especially the Jesuits were anti-science in the seventeenth century, and unfortunately they still exist, the experimental confirmation of Galileo’s law of fall, using direct drop rather than an inclined plane, was the Jesuit, Giovanni Battista Riccioli(1598–1671).


Giovanni Battista Riccioli Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Discorsi also contains Galileo’s work on projectile motion, which again was important and influential. The major thing is the parabola law that states that anything projected upwards and away follows a parabolic path. Galileo was not the only natural philosopher, who determined this. The Englishman Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621) also discovered the parabola law and in fact his work on projectile motion went well beyond that of Galileo. Unfortunately, he never published anything so his work remained unknown.  One of Galileo’s acolytes, Bonaventura Cavalieri (1598–1647),


Bonaventura Cavalieri Source: Wikimedia Commons

was actually the first to publish the parabola law in his Lo Specchio Ustorio, overo, Trattato delle settioni coniche (The Burning Mirror, or a Treatise on Conic Sections) 1632.

This brought an accusation of intellectual theft from Galileo and it is impossible to tell from the ensuing correspondence, whether Cavalieri discovered the law independently or borrowed it without acknowledgement from Galileo.

The only problem that remained was what exactly was impetus. What was imparted to bodies to keep them moving? The answer was nothing. The solution was to invert the question and to consider what makes moving bodies cease to move? The answer is if nothing does, they don’t. This is known as the principle of inertia, which states that a body remains at rest or continues to move in a straight line unless acted upon by a force. Of course, in the early seventeenth century nobody really knew what force was but they still managed to discover the basic principle of inertia. Galileo sort of got halfway there. Still under the influence of the Platonic axioms, with their uniform circular motion, he argued that a homogenous sphere turning around its centre of gravity at the earth’s surface forever were there no friction at its bearings or against the air. Because of this Galileo is often credited with provided the theory of inertia as later expounded by Newton but this is false.

The Dutch scholar Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637) developed the concept of rectilinear inertia, as later used by Newton but also believed, like Galileo, in the conservation of constant circular velocity. Beeckman is interesting because he never published anything and his writing only became known at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, Beeckman was in contact, both personally and by correspondence, with the leading French mathematicians of the period, Descartes, Gassendi and Mersenne. For a time he was Descartes teacher and much of Descartes physics goes back to Beeckman. Descartes learnt the principle of inertia from Beeckman and it was he who published and it was his writings that were Newton’s source. The transmission of Beeckman’s work is an excellent illustration that scientific information does not just flow over published works but also through personal, private channels, when scientists communicate with each other.

With the laws of fall, the parabola law and the principle of inertia the investigators in the early seventeenth century had a new foundation for terrestrial mechanics to replace those of Aristotle.









Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science

7 responses to “The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXIX

  1. Todd Timberlake

    I like to point out to my students that if Galileo had attempted to determine the acceleration in free fall by extrapolating his inclined plane results to the case of a vertical plane, he would have gotten the wrong result (because the spin of the rolling ball actually reduces the rate of linear acceleration). But Galileo was really only concerned with the proportionality relation, not the value of the constant of proportionality. That part of the analogy worked, even though a more complete analogy would have failed. As you note, it was not until Riccioli that the actual acceleration was measured and Riccoli did it directly by dropping balls in the Asinelli tower in Bologna (which I have climbed – it looks just as it did in Riccioli’s time, or at least if feels that way) so he avoided the analogy problem.

  2. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx very much for this, and for getting close to discussing the gunners’ question: what elevation of a gun gets its maximum range, which is more a question asked about gunners rather than by gunners.

  3. “Some people think that because Stevin only wrote and published in Dutch that his mathematical physics remained largely unknown.”

    One pet peeve is the lack of hyphens in two-word adjectives, the difference between a man-eating herring and a man eating shark. The other is misplaced “only”s. The sentence quoted above actually means that he wrote in Dutch and published in Dutch but didn’t do anything else (such has sing) in Dutch. Rather, it should be “wrote and published only in Dutch”.

    Consider the sentence: The baboon gave the bun to the bishop. One can insert “only” before or after each word, and the meaning is almost always substantially different.

  4. John Valean Baily

    “Richard Swineshead (fl. c. 1340–1354) “… RS was 14 ?

    • fl. c. means flourished aproximately. When the dates of birth and death of a scholar from the past are not known then the perriod when he was known to have been active is stated instead with the abbreviation fl. For example the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemaeus fl. 150 CE.

  5. B'Rat

    I love how Riccioli in his experiment measured time using the most advanced instruments available: a pendulum painstakingly calibrated over whole days (!) and a chorus of monks!

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