The Power of Language, and misinformation about Galileo

Leaning tower of pisa 2We asked about Galileo in the previous post, wondering where it was that he did his famous experiment, dropping objects of different weights at the same time, and discovering that they hit the ground at the same time as well. The answer was probably obvious to everyone, since everyone knows the story: he went up the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped the objects from there.

Except…it never happened. Or rather, there’s no reliable evidence at all that it did. So how did the story get started? Well, that’s the whole point of this exercise, demonstrating that if you write something in error, it could haunt you forever.

Galileo’s first biographer, Vincenzo Viviani, really really liked his subject and wanted to show what a great scientist he was. And it’s true that despite living in several different places through the years, Galileo did teach at Pisa during the time period when the experiments with the tower were supposed to have happened. But as Nicholas Shrady says in his book, Tilt: a Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa,

Galileo did, in fact, refer to falling bodies and question Aristotle in his Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, but that work was published in 1638, near the end of his life and a year before Viviani appeared on the scene, and no reference is made, oblique or otherwise, to the Tower of Pisa: “Aristotle says that ‘an iron ball of one hundred pounds, falling from a height of one hundred cubits reaches the ground before a one-pound ball has fallen a single cubit.’ I [Salviati, a speaker in the dialogue who represents Galileo] say that they arrive at the same time.” (p. 104)

In other words, there is no record, anywhere in Galileo’s own writings, of the experiment on the tower — even when he’s talking about those falling objects. So where did the first account come from? From Vincenzo Viviani, that first biographer who wrote the story a decade after Galileo’s death, and more than sixty years after the supposed experiment.

And ever since then, the story has been repeated, and repeated, and embellished, and repeated, until it is accepted as fact by almost everyone. But going by the records, we don’t even know it actually happened.

What does that tell you about the power of language? It demonstrates that when you write something — you’d better get it right the first time. Because if you make an error and someone picks it up and runs with it, that error could  stay with you forever.