Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

1
How the Heavens Go
Galileo Galilei

The Tale of the Tower

Legend has it that a young, ambitious, and at that moment frustrated mathematics professor climbed to the top of the bell tower in Pisa one day, perhaps in 1591, with a bag of ebony and lead balls. He had advertised to the university community at Pisa that he intended to disprove by experiment a doctrine originated by Aristotle almost two thousand years earlier: that objects fall at a rate proportional to their weight; a ten-pound ball would fall ten times faster than a onepound ball. With a flourish the young professor signaled to the crowd of amused students and disapproving philosophy professors below, selected balls of the same material but with much different weights, and dropped them. Without air resistance (that is, in a vacuum), two balls of different weights (and made of any material) would have reached the ground at the same time. That did not happen in Pisa on that day in 1591, but Aristotle's ancient principle was clearly violated anyway, and that, the young professor told his audience, was the lesson. The students cheered, and the philosophy professors were skeptical.

The hero of this tale was Galileo Galilei. He did not actually conduct that “experiment” from the Tower of Pisa, but had he done so it would have been entirely in character. Throughout his life, Galileo had little regard for authority, and one of his perennial targets was Aristotle, the ultimate authority for university philosophy faculties at the time. Galileo's personal style was confrontational, witty, ironic, and often sarcastic. His intellectual style, as the Tower story instructs, was to build his theories with an ultimate appeal to observations.

The philosophers of Pisa were not impressed with either Galileo or his methods, and would not have been any more sympathetic even if they had witnessed the Tower experiment. To no one's surprise, Galileo's contract at the University of Pisa was not renewed.

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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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