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.