You are on page 1of 15
HAROLD I. BROWN GALILEO, THE ELEMENTS, AND THE TIDES FOR many historians Galileo's attempt to account for the tides as a result of the combined daily and annual motion of the earth, and his belief that this argument provided a physical proof that the earth moves, stands as something of an embarrassment. Not only are there serious empirical and conceptual difficulties with this proposal,! but it seems blatantly inconsistent with Galileo’s own theory of motion. Thus Aiton maintains that: Us error appears all the more regetabte when tis remembered that his reply eo the argument of the constant east wind and the westward displacement of projectiles, advanced in opposiion 10 the hypothesis of the earth’ motion, Jimplies the fality of his theory of the tides. For he declared that everything on {he earth moved with i and was unaffected by its motion. One may well wonder hove Galileo came to overlook the fact that this statement applied to the oceans Similarly Hall writes with respect to the theory of the tides, “For all its superficial plausibility... it conflicted with Galileo's earlier, comeet enunciation of the properties of inertial systems,"* and Clavelin argu Quite obviously this explanation of tidal phenomena ran counter to the arguments advanced in the rest of the Dialogue. Thus, while the entie Second Day win devoted to the proof thatthe dural rotation cannot cause the least perturbation, chat nothing would happen on a moving earth that would not also happen on an earth at rest, Galle clearly abandoned the idea thatthe earth aa sm inertia system when he attributed she tides tothe double motion ofthe each ‘on the Fourth Day. --- In short, he failed to see that the Fourth Day of the gue was in confit with the Second. Now Aiton's remarks are not completely correct since on both the Second and the Fourth Day of the Dialogue Galileo denies that the air See, for example, W.R. J: Shea, "Galileo's Cam to Fame: The Proof that the Earth Moves fromthe Evidence’ of the Ties, Bvtish Journal for the History of Setence, 5 (1970, tteazi. 1E, J Aiton, “Galieo's Theory of the Tie, dural of Science, 10, (1964), 46 3, Rupee Hall, #rom Galo to Newton Harper and Row (New York, 1963), 77- Shiai Cavelin, The Natural Phloropty of Cale, tans AJ. Pomerany, The MIT Pree (Cambridge, 1974), 478-479, For similar asesments See Arh Koealer, The Slepualrs, Gronct and Dunlop (New York, 1968), 453-454; Serge Moscoviel, ‘Les développements Ieoriger de lator galeenne des marker Revwe DUtstore Des Sciences, 18 (1969), 207; Dudley Shapere Gale, Unverty of Chieage Pree: (Chicago, 1974), 101. Attempts to show that here 3 slnfieant senac in whieh Galileo's sheary of the ter comet ve bees made by Harold Burstyn, Calleo's Atempt to Prove that the Earth Moves) Zn, 53 (196 ToL-IRb and Sein’ Drake, "Gale's Theory of the Tide, Gale Studies, University of Michigan, Pets (An Arbor, 1970}, 200-213, CL. ho the exchange between Alton end Burstyn, Jas, 38 (1965), 56-63, Stud. Hit, Phil. Se. 7 (1976), No.4, Pinted in Great Britain 387 338 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science is unaffected by the motion of the earth.* This too would seem inconsistent with Galileo's theory of motion and one can understand why Clavelin suggests that the Fourth Day of the Dialogue ‘was not entirely of a piece with the other Days. Its arguments ean therefore be split off from the rest of the work (as, in fact, they were by Galileo's successors) without detracting from the value of the remainder.’* Our concern here, however, is not to isolate those parts of the Dialogue which were acceptable to later science, but rather to understand the internal structure of the Dialogue, and it is clear that Galileo would have unequivocally rejected Clavelin’s suggestion since he took his theory of the tides to be the capstone of his argument for the Copemican view. On the Second Day of the Dialogue Galileo described the problem of the constitution of the universe as ‘one of the greatest and noblest problems in nature’ and went on to state that this problem “becomes still grander when directed toward another discovery; I refer to that of the cause of the flow and ebb of the sea...°” And on the Third Day Galileo refers to the problem of the tides as “that principal event from which our discussions took their rise," and as ‘the end and, goal of all our previous discussions."” As Shea points out, Galileo was proud of his theory of the tides," and it seems highly unlikely that he would have missed a blatant contradiction between this theory and his theory of motion, Thus we should consider seriously the hypothesis that there is an aspect of Galileo's physics which has been missed by the usual interpretations and which, when taken into aecount, will restore the consistency of these two central parts of the Dialogue. I will argue here that there is such an unnoticed aspect, that a careful reading of the Dialogue shows that Galileo accepted a version of the traditional doctrine that the universe is made up of a small number of elements having distinct dynamical properties, and that his analysis of motion must be understood in the context of his doctrine of elements. Once this is taken into account we will see that Galileo’s theory of the tides is not only consistent with his theory of motion, but presupposes it. It should pethaps be emphasized that in arguing for the presence of an ‘Aristotelian’ notion in Galileo’s physies Iam not attempting to reduce his stature as a revolutionary thinker, for we will see that Galileo did not SGaldeo Gallet Le Opees ed Antonio Favaro,G, Bazbers (Florence, 1890—1909), VI 168, 464466. Dialogue Concerning. the Tuo Chief World Syitems, tans Selman Drake (niversty of California Press, Berkely, 1988), 142, 489441. Al ranting from the Dialogue ase Drake's ‘Glave Nature! Philosophy of Galen, 481 opere, Vill 286. rake, 210. Opera, IN 489. Drake, 418. Popere, VL, $41, Desk, 415. 93h, "Galileo's Gaim to Fame’, 1-112 Galileo, the Elements, and the Tides 339 merely adopt the traditional concept of elements, but redefined it in such @ way as to transform an old idea into a new one. We will begin our discussion with an examination of Galileo's theory of motion, ‘Natural Motion and Conserved Motion Galileo rejected the Aristotelian view that a terrestrial object can move only as Tong as a force is acting on it. Rather, he maintained that on the ‘earth, as in the heavens, a body engaged in uniform circular motion will continue to move eternally without the need of a sustaining force. This doctrine provides the basis for Galileo's response to a number of standard objections to the thesis that the earth moves. A stone dropped from a tower, for example, will appear to us to fall vertically because it continues its circular motion along with its vertical motion and thus stays alongside the tower. A cannonball fired vertically will fall back to the cannon since the ball continues its circular motion after it has left the cannon and thus remains directly above the cannon throughout its flight. A cannonball fired to the east will travel the same distance from the cannon as one fired to the west since both share the earth’s circular motion and thus there is no differential effect of this motion on the paths of the two balls. Thus in cases of projectile motion such as a cannonball fired parallel to the horizon, the ball is engaged in two distinct motions. If the ball leaves the cannon with a velocity v it will, according to Galileo, move eternally in a circle with this velocity in the absence of opposing forces. Many historians view this as the first theory of ‘inertial motion’, but there is still some dispute as to whether this is a correct characterization of the motion in question. Since this dispute is, not germane to the present paper, and since it is clear that Galileo did hold that circular motion is conserved, I will use the neutral term ‘conserved motion’ to refer to motion of this sort. ‘Along with the motion imparted by the cannon, the ball is also moving with the diumal motion of the earth, and it is the fact that ‘objects such as cannonballs and falling stones share the earth’s diurnal motion that accounts for the absence of those effects which the Aristotelians believed would be observable on a moving earth. What does not seem to have been generally recognized by commentators on the Dialogue is that the diumal motion of the cannonball, the falling stone, and the earth itself is not, according to Galileo, another example of conserved motion, but has a completely different explanation: this, circular motion is maintained because it is the natural motion for the earth. Stones and cannonballs are parts of the earth, earthy objects, and ‘thus naturally move in the same manner as the earth. Let us examine the passages in the Dialogue on which this interpretation is based, ‘The first passage I want to consider occurs early on the Second Day.