iSoul In the beginning is reality.

What Galileo really demonstrated

Galileo Galilei’s inclined plane experiment is described in his work Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, which I quote from the Dover edition. He speaks (through his character Salviati) of “those sciences where mathematical demonstrations are applied to natural phenomena, as is seen in the case of perspective, astronomy, mechanics, music, and others where the principles, once established by well-chosen experiments, become the foundations of the entire superstructure.” (p.178) This is the ancient method of science that Galileo applied to experiments, establishing the foundation of modern science.

Galileo states his Theorem II, Proposition II as:

The spaces described [i.e., traced] by a body falling from rest with a uniformly accelerated motion are to each other as the squares of the time-intervals employed in traversing these distances. (p.174 or p.142 on the OLL edition)

But it has just been proved that so far as distances traversed are concerned it is precisely the same whether a body falls from rest with a uniform acceleration or whether it falls during an equal time-interval with a constant speed which is one-half the maximum speed attained during the accelerated motion.

Then he describes his experiment:

A piece of wooden moulding or scantling, about 12 cubits long, half a cubit wide, and three finger-breadths thick, was taken; on its edge was cut a channel a little more than one finger in breadth; having made this groove very straight, smooth, and polished, and having lined it with parchment, also as smooth and polished as possible, we rolled along it a hard, smooth, and very round bronze ball. Having placed this board in a sloping position, by lifting one end some one or two cubits above the other, we rolled the ball, as I was just saying, along the channel, noting, in a manner presently to be described, the time required to make the descent. We repeated this experiment more than once in order to measure the time with an accuracy such that the deviation between two observations never exceeded one-tenth of a pulse-beat. Having performed this operation and having assured ourselves of its reliability, we now rolled the ball only one-quarter the length of the channel; and having measured the time of its descent, we found it precisely one-half of the former. Next we tried other distances, comparing the time for the whole length with that for the half, or with that for two-thirds, or three-fourths, or indeed for any fraction; in such experiments, repeated a full hundred times, we always found that the spaces traversed were to each other as the squares of the times, and this was true for all inclinations of the plane, i. e., of the channel, along which we rolled the ball. We also observed that the times of descent, for various inclinations of the plane, bore to one another precisely that ratio which, as we shall see later, the Author had predicted and demonstrated for them.

For the measurement of time, we employed a large vessel of water placed in an elevated position; to the bottom of this vessel was soldered a pipe of small diameter giving a thin jet of water, which we collected in a small glass during the time of each descent, whether for the whole length of the channel or for a part of its length; the water thus collected was weighed, after each descent, on a very accurate balance; the differences and ratios of these weights gave us the differences and ratios of the times, and this with such accuracy that although the operation was repeated many, many times, there was no appreciable discrepancy in the results. (p.178-179 or p.146 on the OLL)

Thus Galileo set the length of the incline as the length of the channel, then one-quarter, then half, then two-thirds, three-quarters, and other fractions of the channel length. A bronze ball was rolled down the channel and the time was measured by weighing the amount of water that flowed through a small diameter pipe into a glass. The result was “we always found that the spaces traversed were to each other as the squares of the times”.

Let us represent the lengths as x(p) = the length of the channel × p and the corresponding times as t(p). Then Galileo is saying that the ratio of x(p) to x(q) is as the ratio of t(p)2 to t(q)2. But Galileo measured the change in legerity, not the change in velocity, because length is the independent variable and time is the dependent variable. That is, the ratio of t(p)2 to x(p) is as the ratio of t(q)2 to x(q), which means the expedience is constant, not the acceleration. Since he explains this in terms of speed and acceleration, rather than pace and expedience, Galileo implicitly acknowledges the interchangeability of length and duration in ratios.

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