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

Book 2, chapter V
Galileo and the new physics
Studies of light, heat, and atmospheric pressure
We have seen that Gilbert was by no means lacking in versatility, yet the investigations upon which his fame is founded were all pursued along one line, so that the father of magnetism may be considered one of the earliest of specialists in physical science. Most workers of the time, on the other band, extended their investigations in many directions. The sum total of scientific knowledge of that day had not bulked so large as to exclude the possibility that one man might master it all. So we find a Galileo, for example, making revolutionary discoveries in astronomy, and performing fundamental experiments in various fields of physics. Galileo's great contemporary, Kepler, was almost equally versatile, though his astronomical studies were of such pre-eminent importance that his other investigations sink into relative insignificance. Yet he performed some notable experiments in at least one department of physics. These experiments had to do with the refraction of light, a subject which Kepler was led to investigate, in part at least, through his interest in the telescope.

We have seen that Ptolemy in the Alexandrian time, and Alhazen, the Arab, made studies of refraction. Kepler repeated their experiments, and, striving as always to generalize his observations, he attempted to find the law that governed the observed change of direction which a ray of light assumes in passing from one medium to another. Kepler measured the angle of refraction by means of a simple yet ingenious trough-like apparatus which enabled him to compare readily the direct and refracted rays. He discovered that when a ray of light passes through a glass plate, if it strikes the farther surface of the glass at an angle greater than 45 degrees it will be totally refracted instead of passing through into the air. He could not well fail to know that different mediums refract light differently, and that for the same medium the amount of light valies with the change in the angle of incidence. He was not able, however, to generalize his observations as he desired, and to the last the law that governs refraction escaped him. It remained for Willebrord Snell, a Dutchman, about the year 1621, to discover the law in question, and for Descartes, a little later, to formulate it. Descartes, indeed, has sometimes been supposed to be the discoverer of the law. There is reason to believe that he based his generalizations on the experiment of Snell, though he did not openly acknowledge his indebtedness. The law, as Descartes expressed it, states that the sine of the angle of incidence bears a fixed ratio to the sine of the angle of refraction for any given medium. Here, then, was another illustration of the fact that almost infinitely varied phenomena may be brought within the scope of a simple law. Once the law had been expressed, it could be tested and verified with the greatest ease; and, as usual, the discovery being made, it seems surprising that earlier investigators - in particular so sagacious a guesser as Kepler - should have missed it.

Galileo himself must have been to some extent a student of light, since, as we have seen, he made such notable contributions to practical optics through perfecting the telescope; but he seems not to have added anything to the theory of light. The subject of heat, however, attracted his attention in a somewhat different way, and he was led to the invention of the first contrivance for measuring temperatures. His thermometer was based on the afterwards familiar principle of the expansion of a liquid under the influence of heat; but as a practical means of measuring temperature it was a very crude affair, because the tube that contained the measuring liquid was exposed to the air, hence barometric changes of pressure vitiated the experiment. It remained for Galileo's Italian successors of the Accademia del Cimento of Florence to improve upon the apparatus, after the experiments of Torricelli - to which we shall refer in a moment - had thrown new light on the question of atmospheric pressure. Still later the celebrated Huygens hit upon the idea of using the melting and the boiling point of water as fixed points in a scale of measurements, which first gave definiteness to thermometric tests.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.