Galileo, Kepler and theories of tides

Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Leoni

Cardinal Bellarmine had written in 1615 that the Copernican system could not be defended without “a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun”.[26]Galileo considered his theory of the tides to provide the required physical proof of the motion of the earth. This theory was so important to him that he originally intended to entitle his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems the Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea.[27] The reference to tides was removed by order of the Inquisition.

For Galileo, the tides were caused by the sloshing back and forth of water in the seas as a point on the Earth’s surface speeded up and slowed down because of the Earth’s rotation on its axis and revolution around the Sun. He circulated his first account of the tides in 1616, addressed to Cardinal Orsini.[28] His theory gave the first insight into the importance of the shapes of ocean basins in the size and timing of tides; he correctly accounted, for instance, for the negligible tides halfway along the Adriatic Sea compared to those at the ends. As a general account of the cause of tides, however, his theory was a failure.

If this theory were correct, there would be only one high tide per day. Galileo and his contemporaries were aware of this inadequacy because there are two daily high tides at Venice instead of one, about twelve hours apart. Galileo dismissed this anomaly as the result of several secondary causes, including the shape of the sea, its depth, and other factors.[29] Against the assertion that Galileo was deceptive in making these arguments, Albert Einstein expressed the opinion that Galileo developed his “fascinating arguments” and accepted them uncritically out of a desire for physical proof of the motion of the Earth.[30] Galileo dismissed the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides,[31] which the latter had acquired from the astrological tradition enunciated in Ptolemy’sTetrabiblos.[citation needed] He also refused to accept Kepler’s elliptical orbits of the planets,[32] considering the circle the “perfect” shape for planetary orbits.

Controversy over comets and The Assayer

Main article: The Assayer

In 1619, Galileo became embroiled in a controversy with Father Orazio Grassi, professor of mathematics at the Jesuit Collegio Romano. It began as a dispute over the nature of comets, but by the time Galileo had published The Assayer (Il Saggiatore) in 1623, his last salvo in the dispute, it had become a much wider argument over the very nature of science itself. Because The Assayer contains such a wealth of Galileo’s ideas on how science should be practised, it has been referred to as his scientific manifesto.[33] Early in 1619, Father Grassi had anonymously published a pamphlet, An Astronomical Disputation on the Three Comets of the Year 1618[34] which discussed the nature of a comet that had appeared late in November of the previous year. Grassi concluded that the comet was a fiery body which had moved along a segment of a great circle at a constant distance from the earth,[35] and since it moved in the sky more slowly than the moon, it must be farther away than the moon.

Grassi’s arguments and conclusions were criticised in a subsequent article, Discourse on the Comets,[36] published under the name of one of Galileo’s disciples, a Florentine lawyer named Mario Guiducci, although it had been largely written by Galileo himself.[37] Galileo and Guiducci offered no definitive theory of their own on the nature of comets,[38] although they did present some tentative conjectures that are now known to be mistaken. In its opening passage, Galileo and Guiducci’s Discourse gratuitously insulted the JesuitChristopher Scheiner,[39] and various uncomplimentary remarks about the professors of the Collegio Romano were scattered throughout the work.[40] The Jesuits were offended,[41] and Grassi soon replied with a polemical tract of his own, The Astronomical and Philosophical Balance,[42] under the pseudonym Lothario Sarsio Sigensano,[43] purporting to be one of his own pupils.

The Assayer was Galileo’s devastating reply to the Astronomical Balance.[44] It has been widely regarded as a masterpiece of polemical literature,[45] in which “Sarsi’s” arguments are subjected to withering scorn.[46] It was greeted with wide acclaim, and particularly pleased the new pope, Urban VIII, to whom it had been dedicated.[47] Galileo’s dispute with Grassi permanently alienated many of the Jesuits who had previously been sympathetic to his ideas,[48] and Galileo and his friends were convinced that these Jesuits were responsible for bringing about his later condemnation.[49] The evidence for this is at best equivocal.

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