The physics of hell

The author of a new book on Galileo claims that the scientist’s greatest contribution to theoretical physics came about, ironically enough, from thinking about the dimensions of Dante’s hell:

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.

 

Peterson can take the Galileo-love a little too far, but the interplay between science and art in this instance is a fascinating story — and I can only imagine that the diagrams accompanying that PowerPoint presentation would have been particularly gripping…

Watch the video:

Margaret Cabaniss

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Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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