Measuring Hell: Was modern physics born in the Inferno?

Chris Wright in the Boston Globe:

ScreenHunter_05 Jan. 15 11.07 Given his devotion to empirical fact, it seems odd to think that Galileo’s most important ideas might have their roots not in the real world, but in a fictional one. But that’s the argument that Mount Holyoke College physics professor Mark Peterson has been developing for the past several years: specifically, that one of Galileo’s crucial contributions to physics came from measuring the hell of Dante’s Inferno. Or rather, from disproving its measurements.

In 1588, when Galileo was a 24-year-old unknown, a medical school dropout, he was invited to deliver a couple of lectures on Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Many in Galileo’s audience would have been shocked, even dismayed, to see this young upstart take the stage and start poking holes in what they believed about the poet’s meticulously constructed fantasy world.

Ever since its 1314 publication, scholars had toiled to map the physical features of Dante’s Inferno — the blasted valleys and caverns, the roiling rivers of fire. What Galileo said, put simply, is that many commonly accepted dimensions did not stand up to mathematical scrutiny. Using complex geometrical analysis, he attacked a leading scholar’s version of the Inferno’s structure, pointing out that his description of the infernal architecture — such as the massive cylinders descending to the center of the Earth — would, in real life, collapse under their own weight. Later, Galileo realized the leading rival theory was wrong, too, and that even the greatest scholars of the time simply didn’t understand how real-world structures worked.

More here.