On chapter 9 of M. Spivak's book on calculus there is an exercise in which Spivak asks the reader to prove that Galileo "got his facts wrong". More specifically, Spivak asks one to to show if a body falls a distance $d(t)$ in $t$ second and $d^{\prime}$ is proportional to $d$ then $d$ cannot be a function of the form $d(t) = ct^{2}$.

Settling it is kind of a no-brainer: yet, did Galileo really claim what Spivak is attributing to him therein? Do you know if this "mistake" by Galileo had been noticed before? If I understand correctly, even Newton took for granted the claim by Galileo according to which "the descent of bodies varied as the square of the time" (cf. p. 21 of vol. I of the University of California Press edition of the Principia)? What's going on here?

Let me thank you for your comments, suggestions, links, answers, etc.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Does Spivak make it sound as though Galileo never realized his mistake? $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Nov 24 '17 at 1:10

Yes, indeed when trying to obtain the law of falling bodies, Galileo's first conjecture was that the speed is proportional to the distance traveled. After some contemplation, Galileo understood that this cannot be the case and eventually came with the correct law.

Good source on Galileo: S. Drake, Galileo at work. (There are many editions).


Yes, Galileo made that error (and so did Descartes). Only later did he realise that the speed is proportional to the time ellapsed, not to the distance already covered. I suggest that you read The new science of motion: A study of Galileo's De motu locali, by Winifred L. Wisan (Archive for History of Exact Sciences, June 1974, 13, Issue 2–3, pp 103–306).

  • $\begingroup$ @RoryDaulton No. What I mean is what I wrote. It's the distance that's proportional to the square of the time elapsed. $\endgroup$ – José Carlos Santos Nov 24 '17 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, of course, my mistake. $\endgroup$ – Rory Daulton Nov 24 '17 at 11:32

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.