Galileo and Tennis: Reconciling the New Physics with Commonsense

in Nuncius
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This paper discusses a passage from the Second Day of Galileo’s Dialogue in which explicit reference is made to the game of tennis and, more specifically, to spinning balls. This often overlooked passage forms part and parcel of the tightly-knit argumentative structure of the work, and provides key arguments against Aristotelian physics. Furthermore, Galileo’s choice of terms shows how careful he was in his use of analogies as effective tools to reconcile the new physics that he was struggling to introduce, with common sense. Finally, and most interestingly, by comparing this passage with a similar one from Galileo’s unpublished writings, this paper shows the extent to which Galileo was interested in the physics of spinning balls and how he planned to include a discussion of it in a work that he began shortly after the publication of the Sidereus Nuncius, but never managed to finish.

Galileo and Tennis: Reconciling the New Physics with Commonsense

in Nuncius
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  • 1

    Johannes KeplerAd Vitellionem paralipomena quibus astronomiæ pars optica traditur (Frankfurt: Claude Marne and Heirs of Johann Aubry1604); English translation by William H. Donahue Optics: Paralipomena to Witelo & Optical Part of Astronomy (Santa Fe: Green Lion Press 2000) p. 109.

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  • 4

     See Galileo GalileiDialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo tolemaico e copernicano (Firenze: Giovanni Battista Landini1632); English translation and notes by Stillman Drake Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican Foreword by Albert Einstein Introduction by John L. Heilbron (New York: The Modern Library 2001) pp. 88-92 216-218 525-526; and Galileo Galilei Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze attenenti alla mecanica et i movimenti locali (Leiden: Elsevier 1638); English translation by Stillman Drake Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences Pertaining to Mechanics and Local Motions (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1974 19892) pp. 16-26 respectively.

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  • 5

     See John L. HeilbronGalileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press2010) pp. 268-285.

  • 24

    Antonio Favaro“Avvertimento,” in Le Opere di Galileo Galilei (cit. note 15) Vol. 8 pp. 559-570: p. 565. The title and structure of Galileo’s projected book clearly refer to the well-known pseudo-Aristotelian collection Problemata comprising some nine hundred problems accumulated over the centuries and compiled by the Peripatetic school possibly as late as the fifth or sixth century A.D which became a model for subsequent authors. “The Aristotelian corpus not only established for some two millennia the definitions and standards for many branches in the natural sciences but also founded a genre that respected neither the disciplinary boundaries nor the systematic presentations for which Aristotle is famous. Although rightly called pseudo-Aristotelian in their final form […] the Problems of Aristotle developed from an authentic Aristotelian core and spawned a vigorous tradition of editions and imitations.” In Ann Blair “The Problemata as a Natural Philosophical Genre” in Natural Particulars. Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe edited by Anthony Grafton Nancy Siraisi (Cambridge MA–London: The MIT Press 1999) pp. 171-204: p. 171. Galileo explicitly refers to pseudo-Aristotle’s Problems as well in his Discorso intorno alle cose che stanno in su l’acqua o che in quella si muovono (Florence: Cosimo Giunti 16122); in Le Opere di Galileo Galilei (cit. note 15) Vol. 4 pp. 57-140: p. 78. Most interestingly the game of tennis was referred to in at least two other works published before Galileo’s Dialogue both in the form of a list of problems accompanied by their solutions in which tennis (as well as other games) were approached from a geometrical point of view and employed to explain and illustrate various physical phaenomena. See Bernardino Baldi (abbot of Guastalla and polymath 1553-1617 author of the first biography of Copernicus in 1588) In mechanica Aristotelis problemata exercitationes (Mainz: Johann Albin 1621): see quaestio XXXIV p. 202; and Hendrick Van Etten (nom de plume of the Jesuit and mathematician Jean Leurechon 1591-1670) Récréation mathématicque composée de plusieurs problèmes plaisants et facétieux (Pont-à-Mousson: Jean Appier Hanzelet 1626) which struck the popular fancy passing through at least 30 editions before 1700 and a few translations: see problem n. 78 p. 85 (a reference to Galileo’s telescope appears in problem n. 65 pp. 60-61).

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  • 29

    Antonio ScainoTrattato del giuoco della palla (Venice: Gabriele Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1555), edited by Giorgio Nonni (Urbino: Edizioni QuattroVenti2000) pp. 178-179. In chapter 67 (entitled “A few advices worth noticing to defend from some difficult and dangerous strokes”) Scaino discusses the way in which a spinning ball may be dealt with: “[…] a stroke cutting the ball is very difficult for the opponent to respond to: in this case he would better be quick in approaching the ball thrusting himself forward and spreading out his arm considerably since by way of that stroke the ball goes back towards the thrower and does not reach as far as it first seemed it would go” (p. 193).

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  • 32

    Johan HuizingaHomo Ludens: Versuch einer Bestimmung des Spielelementes der Kultur (Amsterdam: Pantheon Akademische Verlagsanstalt1939); English translation by Johan Huizinga Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1944) p. 4.

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  • 39

    Galileo GalileiIl saggiatore nel quale con bilancia esquisita e giusta si ponderano le cose contenute nella Libra Astronomica e Filosofica di Lotario Sarsi Sigensano (Rome: Giacomo Mascardi1623); partial English translation by Stillman Drake The Assayer in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo edited by Stillman Drake (New York: Anchor Books 1957) pp. 229-280: p. 238. For a similar image see Johannes Kepler Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae (Linz: Johann Planck and Frankfurt: Gottfried Tampach 1618-1621) in Johannes Kepler gesammelte Werke edited by Max Caspar et al. (Munich: C. H. Beck 1937-2009) 21 vols Vol. 7 pp. 5-530: p. 25. See also Eugenio Garin “Le livre comme symbole à la Renaissance” Le débat 1982 22: 99-117 and La cultura filosofica del Rinascimento italiano (Florence: Sansoni 1961) pp. 457-464.

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  • 40

    Stillman Drake“Galileo’s Language: Mathematics and Poetry in a New Science,” Yale French Studies1973 49: 13-27 pp. 16-17.

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