Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hell leads Galileo to physics?

The claim is that a young Galileo (24 years old) gained valuable insights about physics when he critiqued contemporary calculations of Dante's Inferno. At least this is what physicist Marl Peterson of Mount Holyoke College (woo hoo, a Five College link here) thinks. I don't know what other historians think about the claim - but it is certainly interesting. Probably Galileo was tired of people making stuff up and he was just trying to quash some of those ideas in a quantitative way (Yes, yes - Galileo would be quite busy even today...). Here is an article and a short video from Boston Globe about it (tip Open Culture):


From the article:

Ever since its 1314 publication, scholars had toiled to map the physical features of Dante’s Inferno — the blasted valleys and caverns, the roiling rivers of fire. What Galileo said, put simply, is that many commonly accepted dimensions did not stand up to mathematical scrutiny. Using complex geometrical analysis, he attacked a leading scholar’s version of the Inferno’s structure, pointing out that his description of the infernal architecture — such as the massive cylinders descending to the center of the Earth — would, in real life, collapse under their own weight. Later, Galileo realized the leading rival theory was wrong, too, and that even the greatest scholars of the time simply didn’t understand how real-world structures worked.
Debating the mechanics of the Inferno might sound like intellectual horseplay, the 16th-century equivalent of MIT cafeteria debates about the viability of “Star Trek” teleporters. But there was more to the lectures than this. The insights Galileo gleaned from analyzing Dante’s measurements in fact anticipated a vital principle of structural engineering. By asserting that you cannot create a giant Lucifer by super-sizing the model of a man — that increasing an object’s magnitude would create a whole new set of structural and material imperatives — Galileo was paving the way for the construction of everything from ocean liners to skyscrapers to Macy’s parade floats.
Typically, historians have dismissed these lectures as an inventive but relatively unimportant flourish on Galileo’s part, a mere prelude to his subsequent theories concerning so-called scaling laws. But Peterson sees the lectures as being central to the Italian’s greatest contributions to the history of thought. In applying mathematical models to Dante’s hell, he argues, Galileo was laying the groundwork for what would become theoretical physics. “This was not just a clever entertainment,” he says, “but something deeper, something closer to the mystery of what made the Scientific Revolution.”
Read the full article here.

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