Measuring hell

Was modern physics born in the Inferno?

by Chris Wright

“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.

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