A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter V
Galileo and the new physics
After Galileo had felt the strong hand of the Inquisition, in 1632, he was careful to confine his researches, or at least his publications, to topics that seemed free from theological implications. In doing so he reverted to the field of his earliest studies - namely, the field of mechanics; and the Dialoghi delle Nuove Scienze, which he finished in 1636, and which was printed two years later, attained a celebrity no less than that of the heretical dialogue that had preceded it. The later work was free from all apparent heresies, yet perhaps it did more towards the establishment of the Copernican doctrine, through the teaching of correct mechanical principles, than the other work had accomplished by a more direct method.

Galileo's astronomical discoveries were, as we have seen, in a sense accidental; at least, they received their inception through the inventive genius of another. His mechanical discoveries, on the other hand, were the natural output of his own creative genius. At the very beginning of his career, while yet a very young man, though a professor of mathematics at Pisa, he had begun that onslaught upon the old Aristotelian ideas which he was to continue throughout his life. At the famous leaning tower in Pisa, the young iconoclast performed, in the year 1590, one of the most theatrical demonstrations in the history of science. Assembling a multitude of champions of the old ideas, he proposed to demonstrate the falsity of the Aristotelian doctrine that the velocity of falling bodies is proportionate to their weight. There is perhaps no fact more strongly illustrative of the temper of the Middle Ages than the fact that this doctrine, as taught by the Aristotelian philosopher, should so long have gone unchallenged. Now, however, it was put to the test; Galileo released a half-pound weight and a hundred-pound cannon-ball from near the top of the tower, and, needless to say, they reached the ground together. Of course, the spectators were but little pleased with what they saw. They could not doubt the evidence of their own senses as to the particular experiment in question; they could suggest, however, that the experiment involved a violation of the laws of nature through the practice of magic. To controvert so firmly established an idea savored of heresy. The young man guilty of such iconoclasm was naturally looked at askance by the scholarship of his time. Instead of being applauded, he was hissed, and he found it expedient presently to retire from Pisa.

Fortunately, however, the new spirit of progress had made itself felt more effectively in some other portions of Italy, and so Galileo found a refuge and a following in Padua, and afterwards in Florence; and while, as we have seen, he was obliged to curb his enthusiasm regarding the subject that was perhaps nearest his heart - the promulgation of the Copernican theory - yet he was permitted in the main to carry on his experimental observations unrestrained. These experiments gave him a place of unquestioned authority among his contemporaries, and they have transmitted his name to posterity as that of one of the greatest of experimenters and the virtual founder of modern mechanical science. The experiments in question range over a wide field; but for the most part they have to do with moving bodies and with questions of force, or, as we should now say, of energy. The experiment at the leaning tower showed that the velocity of falling bodies is independent of the weight of the bodies, provided the weight is sufficient to overcome the resistance of the atmosphere. Later experiments with falling bodies led to the discovery of laws regarding the accelerated velocity of fall. Such velocities were found to bear a simple relation to the period of time from the beginning of the fall. Other experiments, in which balls were allowed to roll down inclined planes, corroborated the observation that the pull of gravitation gave a velocity proportionate to the length of fall, whether such fall were direct or in a slanting direction.

These studies were associated with observations on projectiles, regarding which Galileo was the first to entertain correct notions. According to the current idea, a projectile fired, for example, from a cannon, moved in a straight horizontal line until the propulsive force was exhausted, and then fell to the ground in a perpendicular line. Galileo taught that the projectile begins to fall at once on leaving the mouth of the cannon and traverses a parabolic course. According to his idea, which is now familiar to every one, a cannon-ball dropped from the level of the cannon's muzzle will strike the ground simultaneously with a ball fired horizontally from the cannon. As to the paraboloid course pursued by the projectile, the resistance of the air is a factor which Galileo could not accurately compute, and which interferes with the practical realization of his theory. But this is a minor consideration. The great importance of his idea consists in the recognition that such a force as that of gravitation acts in precisely the same way upon all unsupported bodies, whether or not such bodies be at the same time acted upon by a force of translation.

Out of these studies of moving bodies was gradually developed a correct notion of several important general laws of mechanics - laws a knowledge of which was absolutely essential to the progress of physical science. The belief in the rotation of the earth made necessary a clear conception that all bodies at the surface of the earth partake of that motion quite independently of their various observed motions in relation to one another. This idea was hard to grasp, as an oft-repeated argument shows. It was asserted again and again that, if the earth rotates, a stone dropped from the top of a tower could not fall at the foot of the tower, since the earth's motion would sweep the tower far away from its original position while the stone is in transit.

This was one of the stock arguments against the earth's motion, yet it was one that could be refuted with the greatest ease by reasoning from strictly analogous experiments. It might readily be observed, for example, that a stone dropped from a moving cart does not strike the ground directly below the point from which it is dropped, but partakes of the forward motion of the cart. If any one doubt this he has but to jump from a moving cart to be given a practical demonstration of the fact that his entire body was in some way influenced by the motion of translation. Similarly, the simple experiment of tossing a ball from the deck of a moving ship will convince any one that the ball partakes of the motion of the ship, so that it can be manipulated precisely as if the manipulator were standing on the earth. In short, every-day experience gives us illustrations of what might be called compound motion, which makes it seem altogether plausible that, if the earth is in motion, objects at its surface will partake of that motion in a way that does not interfere with any other movements to which they may be subjected. As the Copernican doctrine made its way, this idea of compound motion naturally received more and more attention, and such experiments as those of Galileo prepared the way for a new interpretation of the mechanical principles involved.

The great difficulty was that the subject of moving bodies had all along been contemplated from a wrong point of view. Since force must be applied to an object to put it in motion, it was perhaps not unnaturally assumed that similar force must continue to be applied to keep the object in motion. When, for example, a stone is thrown from the hand, the direct force applied necessarily ceases as soon as the projectile leaves the hand. The stone, nevertheless, flies on for a certain distance and then falls to the ground. How is this flight of the stone to be explained? The ancient philosophers puzzled more than a little over this problem, and the Aristotelians reached the conclusion that the motion of the hand had imparted a propulsive motion to the air, and that this propulsive motion was transmitted to the stone, pushing it on. Just how the air took on this propulsive property was not explained, and the vagueness of thought that characterized the time did not demand an explanation. Possibly the dying away of ripples in water may have furnished, by analogy, an explanation of the gradual dying out of the impulse which propels the stone.

All of this was, of course, an unfortunate maladjustment of the point of view. As every one nowadays knows, the air retards the progress of the stone, enabling the pull of gravitation to drag it to the earth earlier than it otherwise could. Were the resistance of the air and the pull of gravitation removed, the stone as projected from the hand would fly on in a straight line, at an unchanged velocity, forever. But this fact, which is expressed in what we now term the first law of motion, was extremely difficult to grasp. The first important step towards it was perhaps implied in Galileo's study of falling bodies. These studies, as we have seen, demonstrated that a half-pound weight and a hundred-pound weight fall with the same velocity. It is, however, matter of common experience that certain bodies, as, for example, feathers, do not fall at the same rate of speed with these heavier bodies. This anomaly demands an explanation, and the explanation is found in the resistance offered the relatively light object by the air. Once the idea that the air may thus act as an impeding force was grasped, the investigator of mechanical principles had entered on a new and promising course.

Galileo could not demonstrate the retarding influence of air in the way which became familiar a generation or two later; he could not put a feather and a coin in a vacuum tube and prove that the two would there fall with equal velocity, because, in his day, the air-pump had not yet been invented. The experiment was made only a generation after the time of Galileo, as we shall see; but, meantime, the great Italian had fully grasped the idea that atmospheric resistance plays a most important part in regard to the motion of falling and projected bodies. Thanks largely to his own experiments, but partly also to the efforts of others, he had come, before the end of his life, pretty definitely to realize that the motion of a projectile, for example, must be thought of as inherent in the projectile itself, and that the retardation or ultimate cessation of that motion is due to the action of antagonistic forces. In other words, he had come to grasp the meaning of the first law of motion. It remained, however, for the great Frenchman Descartes to give precise expression to this law two years after Galileo's death. As Descartes expressed it in his Principia Philosophiae, published in 1644, any body once in motion tends to go on in a straight line, at a uniform rate of speed, forever. Contrariwise, a stationary body will remain forever at rest unless acted on by some disturbing force.

This all-important law, which lies at the very foundation of all true conceptions of mechanics, was thus worked out during the first half of the seventeenth century, as the outcome of numberless experiments for which Galileo's experiments with failing bodies furnished the foundation. So numerous and so gradual were the steps by which the reversal of view regarding moving bodies was effected that it is impossible to trace them in detail. We must be content to reflect that at the beginning of the Galilean epoch utterly false notions regarding the subject were entertained by the very greatest philosophers - by Galileo himself, for example, and by Kepler - whereas at the close of that epoch the correct and highly illuminative view had been attained.

We must now consider some other experiments of Galileo which led to scarcely less-important results. The experiments in question had to do with the movements of bodies passing down an inclined plane, and with the allied subject of the motion of a pendulum. The elaborate experiments of Galileo regarding the former subject were made by measuring the velocity of a ball rolling down a plane inclined at various angles. He found that the velocity acquired by a ball was proportional to the height from which the ball descended regardless of the steepness of the incline. Experiments were made also with a ball rolling down a curved gutter, the curve representing the are of a circle. These experiments led to the study of the curvilinear motions of a weight suspended by a cord; in other words, of the pendulum.

Regarding the motion of the pendulum, some very curious facts were soon ascertained. Galileo found, for example, that a pendulum of a given length performs its oscillations with the same frequency though the arc described by the pendulum be varied greatly.[1] He found, also, that the rate of oscillation for pendulums of different lengths varies according to a simple law. In order that one pendulum shall oscillate one-half as fast as another, the length of the pendulums must be as four to one. Similarly, by lengthening the pendulums nine times, the oscillation is reduced to one-third, In other words, the rate of oscillation of pendulums varies inversely as the square of their length. Here, then, is a simple relation between the motions of swinging bodies which suggests the relation which Kepler bad discovered between the relative motions of the planets. Every such discovery coming in this age of the rejuvenation of experimental science had a peculiar force in teaching men the all-important lesson that simple laws lie back of most of the diverse phenomena of nature, if only these laws can be discovered.

Galileo further observed that his pendulum might be constructed of any weight sufficiently heavy readily to overcome the atmospheric resistance, and that, with this qualification, neither the weight nor the material had any influence upon the time of oscillation, this being solely determined by the length of the cord. Naturally, the practical utility of these discoveries was not overlooked by Galileo. Since a pendulum of a given length oscillates with unvarying rapidity, here is an obvious means of measuring time. Galileo, however, appears not to have met with any great measure of success in putting this idea into practice. It remained for the mechanical ingenuity of Huyghens to construct a satisfactory pendulum clock.

As a theoretical result of the studies of rolling and oscillating bodies, there was developed what is usually spoken of as the third law of motion - namely, the law that a given force operates upon a moving body with an effect proportionate to its effect upon the same body when at rest. Or, as Whewell states the law: "The dynamical effect of force is as the statical effect; that is, the velocity which any force generates in a given time, when it puts the body in motion, is proportional to the pressure which this same force produces in a body at rest."[2] According to the second law of motion, each one of the different forces, operating at the same time upon a moving body, produces the same effect as if it operated upon the body while at rest.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.