August 28, 2020



It was the most perfect experiment in the history of science. Holding both a cannon ball and a small musket ball, the 30-something Pisa native, Galileo Galilei, scaled the steps of his city’s famous Leaning Tower, and held them dramatically over the edge. Eight stories below, the town’s most learned scholars and priests were gathered as observers. They watched as the two balls dropped to the ground at the same speed, disproving with a single stroke, the ancient idea that objects fall at different rates, depending on their weight and size. This archaic concept, which had been espoused by Aristotle, had been accepted without question for more than 2,000 years—Galileo’s great innovation was to put it to a practical test of observation.

Unfortunately, this famous story is probably not true. Galileo never wrote about it himself. It was recounted in a late biography penned by his secretary, Vincenzo Viviani. Most historians now believe that it was Galileo’s imaginative disciples who invented the Leaning Tower tale in order to make the theory so clear that even a child could understand it. The Leaning Tower was an appropriate setting not just because of its unusual angle. Surrounded by the most impressive collection of religious buildings in Italy, it makes Galileo’s experiment, in defiance of an ancient tradition supported by the Church, seem all the more radical.

In the long run, the fabrication hardly matters. Galileo was indisputably the pioneer of scientific experimentation, relying on direct observation rather than abstract reasoning based on research in the library—and he probably did test his theory in other places around Pisa. Albert Einstein praised Galileo as “the father of modern science” for his breakthrough. And in Italy, Galileo has become a historical celebrity almost on par with the saints. In the mid-1700s, when his body was disinterred to move it to a more magnificent sepulcher, admirers removed his middle finger from his body and preserved it as a secular relic. The dried-out digit can be seen today, mounted in a lovely chalice-like container in the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, although nobody seems to know why that particular finger was so honored.

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