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Measuring hell

Was modern physics born in the Inferno?

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By Text by Chris Wright Graphic by Javier Zarracina
January 9, 2011

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“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

When Sir Isaac Newton made this remark, in 1676, the name Galileo Galilei would not have been far from his mind. Galileo, who died the year Newton was born, did much of the legwork for the English physicist’s Laws of Motion, as well as for many of the other principles that underpinned the Scientific Revolution. Galileo’s shoulders, possibly more than those of any single figure in history, have served as an observation deck for generations of scientists.

It was Galileo who conclusively swept away the idea that the sun revolved around the Earth, who dismantled the looming edifice of Aristotelian physics. Unlike others of the age, the Italian steadfastly refused to hammer the square pegs of discovery into the round holes of conventional wisdom. Through an unremitting dedication to observation and experiment, it was he who ushered in the age of modern science.

Given his devotion to empirical fact, it seems odd to think that Galileo’s most important ideas might have their roots not in the real world, but in a fictional one. But that’s the argument that Mount Holyoke College physics professor Mark Peterson has been developing for the past several years: specifically, that one of Galileo’s crucial contributions to physics came from measuring the hell of Dante’s Inferno. Or rather, from disproving its measurements.

In 1588, when Galileo was a 24-year-old unknown, a medical school dropout, he was invited to deliver a couple of lectures on Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Many in Galileo’s audience would have been shocked, even dismayed, to see this young upstart take the stage and start poking holes in what they believed about the poet’s meticulously constructed fantasy world.

Ever since its 1314 publication, scholars had toiled to map the physical features of Dante’s Inferno — the blasted valleys and caverns, the roiling rivers of fire. What Galileo said, put simply, is that many commonly accepted dimensions did not stand up to mathematical scrutiny. Using complex geometrical analysis, he attacked a leading scholar’s version of the Inferno’s structure, pointing out that his description of the infernal architecture — such as the massive cylinders descending to the center of the Earth — would, in real life, collapse under their own weight. Later, Galileo realized the leading rival theory was wrong, too, and that even the greatest scholars of the time simply didn’t understand how real-world structures worked.

Debating the mechanics of the Inferno might sound like intellectual horseplay, the 16th-century equivalent of MIT cafeteria debates about the viability of “Star Trek” teleporters. But there was more to the lectures than this. The insights Galileo gleaned from analyzing Dante’s measurements in fact anticipated a vital principle of structural engineering. By asserting that you cannot create a giant Lucifer by super-sizing the model of a man — that increasing an object’s magnitude would create a whole new set of structural and material imperatives — Galileo was paving the way for the construction of everything from ocean liners to skyscrapers to Macy’s parade floats.

Typically, historians have dismissed these lectures as an inventive but relatively unimportant flourish on Galileo’s part, a mere prelude to his subsequent theories concerning so-called scaling laws. But Peterson sees the lectures as being central to the Italian’s greatest contributions to the history of thought. In applying mathematical models to Dante’s hell, he argues, Galileo was laying the groundwork for what would become theoretical physics. “This was not just a clever entertainment,” he says, “but something deeper, something closer to the mystery of what made the Scientific Revolution.”

Peterson first began to explore this notion in a 2002 paper and recently expanded on it at an academic conference at UCLA. This fall, he will publish a book — “Galileo’s Muse: Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts” — that argues this point in more detail. He allows, though, that it will not be easy to divert the tide of expert opinion. “I think some might find [the idea] hard to swallow,” he says.

Galileo, a notorious contrarian, would likely have appreciated Peterson’s theory, which goes against everything we think we know about this stony rationalist. It also contradicts the notion — dearly held by practitioners of the humanities and sciences alike — that fact is fact, art is art, and never the twain shall meet, at least not in any meaningful way. As Peterson likes to point out, in Galileo’s time no such division existed. “Galileo’s thought,” he says, “[drew] directly on the kind of imagination that we associate with the arts.”

In fact, Peterson adds, if Galileo hadn’t given himself over to the “triumph of artifice and imagination” of the poetry he loved, he would never have achieved the insights that shaped the Scientific Revolution, and by extension the modern world. Art, he says, “was the only place this kind of invention could come from.”

As for the fact that he is making claims that run contrary to conventional wisdom, this doesn’t bother Peterson at all. “Galileo himself was always quick to imagine contrary-to-fact situations,” he says. “I think that part of his interest in Copernicanism — the idea that the Earth moves — is that it seemed so contrary to fact, so paradoxical.”

In this regard, at least as Peterson sees it, Galileo has more in common with today’s quantum theorists, whose work requires mad leaps of logic, than he does with the generations of by-the-numbers physicists he inspired. The world’s first true scientist, the professor tells us, understood that it takes a man of reason to provide the proof, but only a fantasist can truly reimagine the universe.

Chris Wright is a writer living in Spain.

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