Thursday, January 30, 2014

Physics: The man who saw stars

In the early sixteen hundreds, the old Greek ideas of science were still very much in acceptance. A physics text book a thousand years old would not have been very far out of date. There had been those who had challenged the old ideas, but most were forgotten or quickly silenced.

However, Galileo Galilei of Pisa, Italy, had read one of these writers, Copernicus, and believed that the earth was not the center of the universe. Nor did he believe heavy objects fall faster than light objects. To demonstrate, he, according to some, dropped two different weight balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They struck the ground at the same time.
Around the same time, he got it into his head to look at the sky with his telescope that he made. It was shorter and better than just about anything before it. He soon saw that the planet Jupiter had at least three moons orbiting it. If this was true, then Copernicus had been right, and Galileo’s belief, which he had kept quiet about for lack of evidence, was justified. All things did not revolve around the earth.
 However, at this time it was believed that passages in the scriptures which said things like “The earth cannot be moved” meant it was immovable in space, so everything else must go around it. In 1616, Galileo went to the Vatican, in Rome, to argue that the teachings of St. Augustine would show that these verses did not mean the earth did not move in space.
He lost his case, and an announcement from the Holy Church was made that the idea that the sun stood still while the earth moved was “false.”
However, some years later he was allowed to write a book on the subject by the Inquisition. It was to be in the common tongue, and be a fair and balanced view of the arguments for and against the earth revolving around the sun. It was called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
Not surprisingly, a fair and balanced argument was hard to do on such a subject, and the evidence in the book overwhelmingly supported a heliocentric1 solar system. Galileo was banned from writing further, and placed under house arrest until his death in 1642.
However, although he had not achieved acclaim during his lifetime, Galileo had done something that before him had seen impossible. He had taken the existing paradigm, and with simple logic and a few experiments, despite all opposition, torn it into shreds.
The story of science was finally ready to take off for the stars. And the one who would help it more than anyone else, by writing what is still possibly the most influential book on science ever, unless one counts the Bible, was born on Christmas day the same year Galileo died. His name was Isaac Newton.
To be continued.

Andrew C. Abbott
1: Heliocentric solar systems revolve around a star. Geocentric systems revolve around a planet.

No comments:

Post a Comment