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.Okay, but Dante was writing an epic, for which Inferno was the first big backdrop. Like modern sci fi filmmakers, he fuzzed the physics a bit.
So? Hell is a spiritual reality, but staging a drama that includes characters touring hell, Dante’s gotta make a scene. Like I told Larry Krauss, who was grousing recently about Trek physics, people don’t go to big box office to learn physics, and in Dante’s day, they didn’t read epics for that either.
But wasn’t a waste of time:
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.More coffee.
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."