Galileo, Boccaccio, McCain and Obama

Galileo, Boccaccio, McCain and Obama
by Lisa Massaciùccoli

Dava Sobel, author of Galileo’s Daughter, has described “the weight” on the famous astronomer and others as he climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s eight-story spiral staircase — laden with cannonballs — to demonstrate a scientific principle which we’ve all learned in school:

“In that famous episode, the weight of iron on the twenty-five-year-old professor’s shoulders was as nothing compared to the burden of Aristotelian thought on his students’ perceptions of reality. Not only Galileo’s classes at Pisa, but university communities all over Europe, honored the dictum of Aristotelian physics that objects at different weights fall at different speeds. A cannonball of ten pounds… would be expected to fall ten times faster than a musket ball of only one pound, so that if both were released together from some summit, the cannonball would land before the musket ball had gotten more than one-tenth of the way to the ground.”

I don’t know about you, but the opposition to Galileo’s stance in this instance seems more outrageous/unlikely than the old world-is-round-not-flat argument. I mean, I can imagine people worrying about going over the edge (in an earth-centered universe*), but… try imagining a large ball striking the ground while a smaller one is hanging less than a yard from the top.

*See way below… at the end.

The larger ball, in fact, did fall faster, much to the relief of the University of Pisa’s philosophy department, but only fractionally so. The pundits whooped it up over the insignificant difference, but Galileo, in old age, summarized their absurd claims:

“Aristotle says that a hundred-pound ball falling from a height of a hundred braccia [arm lengths] hits the ground before a one-pound ball has fallen one braccio. I say they arrive at the same time…. You find, on making the test, that the larger ball beats the smaller one by two inches. Now, behind those two inches you want to hide Aristotle’s ninety-nine braccia, and, speaking only of my tiny error, remain silent about his enormous mistake.”

Sixteenth century philosophers did not feel at home with experimental proof. Kind of like how Twenty-first century U.S. voters feel uncomfortable with reviewing political track records, the historical record of candidates. They seem to be constitutionally — forgive the pun — incapable of looking in the proverbial horse’s mouth, as they cling to the horse’s ass end of democracy.

Galileo was perceived as a threat to the Christian status quo, beliefs buried deep. So the Church, rulers of the day, buried him as best they could.

Giovanni Boccaccio, about three centuries before Galileo’s historic work, thoroughly earned his place on the Church’s now defunct Index of Prohibited books. His Decameron exposed the Christian pieties of the previous thousand years to utter ridicule. As Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish put it recently, writing to me about the Decameron:

“Its very first story is an ironic tale about the gullibility of the Church in not recognizing pious frauds. Cepparello, the worst scoundrel who ever lived, dupes a simple old confessor into thinking he’s led a spotless life and, after his death, is revered by the common people as St. Ciappelletto.”

Well, McCain is not be the worst scoundrel who ever lived, though — potentially — he could become that. Obama, has been turned by the powers-that-be into a St. Ciappelletto of sorts, in part because of the reluctance of the electorate to look beyond his eloquent mouth, its refusal to look at his record, his frightening promises and denials.

Yes, there is a difference between McCain and Obama. Duh.

But that difference — argued about incessantly by our pundits in much the same vein as the Pisan pundits did so long ago — is tantamount to the difference between Galileo’s cannonball and musket ball.

Lisa Massaciùccoli can be reached at
*Washington Irving created the popular impression that people during Columbus’ time thought the world was flat. That false notion has been carried through to today’s history textbooks, where it remains in force as a part of pervasive misinformation, etc. plaguing educational sources, instruction.