Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Might Be Awesome

The last time someone said “if things had been different they would not have been the same” to me it was about a sports event. It was said with a look of serious contemplation about the latest University of Utah vs. BYU football game. The game is called the “holy war” because BYU is owned and operated by the Mormon Church and the University of Utah represents the rest of secular America to the largely Mormon residents of Utah. Utah beat BYU 54-10, and this was cause for some serious consideration. Somehow spectator sports justify the most blatantly foolish statements.

I have, in all seriousness, made the statement: “if things had been different they would not have been the same”, and it was not about a sporting event. I made the statement in reference to one of the seminal events in the formation of science as a philosophical discipline. To clarify I need to backtrack a tad; back to some unspecific year around 1590.

"Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science" -- Stephen Hawking,

Galileo Galilei had just gotten an appointment to chair of Mathematics in Pisa, and was performing his experiments on acceleration due to gravity by dropping baseballs off the leaning tower of Pisa. He dropped the balls from each floor, and then plotted the velocity. This is what he saw:

Galileo did this with bowling balls, and golf balls, and they all had exactly the same curve. This proved that Aristotle was wrong. Aristotle was (perhaps incorrectly) quoted as saying that objects accelerated to a constant velocity that was proportional to their weight. They did this because they wanted to be closer to objects of their same type, and apparently there was a limit to the effective acceleration of their desire.

We are accustomed to the notion that years add knowledge to the collective social “knowing”. Just think of the idea of zero. For thousands of years mankind could count, but apparently did not know what zero was.

There must have been word problems on ancient arithmetic tests like this:

Ezekiel has seven scrolls in his basket. He gives five scrolls to Mathew, and two scrolls to John. How many Scrolls does Ezekiel have left? Well I don’t know either; it’s magic!

Perhaps Ezekiel’s apparently empty basket was full of the desire for more scrolls. Perhaps it was the same palpable desire that Aristotle knew held him to the earth. The ancient world must have been a much more passionate place for its great thinkers to see desire in all things.

Many of you know that the story of Galileo dropping assorted sports balls off the leaning tower of Pisa is apocryphal. Not only were the sports I suggested he pilfered equipment from not invented till many years later, but he had no reliable mechanism for measuring the large velocities generated by free-fall. Instead he used some “spheres” and inclined planes.

Worse yet is the fact that if he had been able to conduct the Pisa experiments as described he would have gotten very different results. A baseball dropped from a height at sea-level air density reaches a terminal velocity of 80.4 ft/sec at about 100 feet of fall. The terminal velocity is where the friction of the air equals the acceleration due to gravity, and the falling baseball just can’t go any faster. Instead of the previous graph Galileo would have seen this:

What is worse is that the denser bowling ball would have a greater terminal velocity. Galileo would have proven experimentally that Aristotle was correct. Instead of forces and vectors science would be speaking the language of desire and love.

More specifically I should have said:
“If things were more amazing then they might be awesome”
Sounds much more reasonable.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Amazing ... the baseball maxes out at just under the 55 mph speed limit at 54.8 mph.

Ask this .. cognitive reflective test .. A bat costs $1 more than a baseball. The baseball and a bat together cost $1.10. How much does the baseball cost?
Most people, even mathematicians, choose 10 cents off the cuff in their heads without doing the math on paper in error, heuristic error, saying $1.10 buries the "10" in short term memory, dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, availability bias leads people to guess at what is still in their heads.

What is still in our heads is what is told, be it true or false, people are so gullible.