Galileo And Me

Scientific legend has it that a young Galileo Galilei conducted an experiment that helped to define some of the properties of gravity. In order to test Aristotle’s notion that objects fall at different rates according to their weight, Galileo is reputed to have taken two balls with materially different weights to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped them simultaneously. According to the story, the balls fell to the ground below at the same rate of acceleration and landed at the same time — thereby showing that Aristotle was wrong and the invisible force of gravity acts equally on objects with different masses. Galileo’s findings still hold up — even when modern-day scientists test the effects of gravitational acceleration at the atomic level.

I conducted my own impromptu experiment with gravity yesterday morning, and can attest that gravity is still out there, working the same way it always has.

I was just starting my morning walk. We had been subjected to the dreaded “wintry mix” overnight, and the footing was treacherous. The parking lot at the corner had been cleared of snow and looked to be dry and safe, so I decided to take a short cut through the parking lot. As I proceeded with a jaunty step across the lot, my right foot hit a patch of black ice, my feet shot out to the left, and I landed hard on the asphalt surface on my right side. I gingerly picked myself up, checked to make sure that I was in one piece, then carefully made my way back to our house, figuring that the wise course would be to skip any further icy adventures that day. Fortunately, I had on several layers as well as my own more than ample personal padding, no bones were broken, and I’m sore, but not badly bruised.

It’s the first time I’ve fallen to the ground in a while, and it got me to thinking how amazing gravity is. I probably fell no more than a few feet, but I struck the pavement with breathtaking (literally) force, as if one of the Ohio State linebackers had hit me at full speed and laid a crushing blow on my right side. The experience made me think that I need to be a lot more judicious about walking during the winter, because gravity is always out there, brooding and ready to yank you down.

I’m just grateful I wasn’t falling from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Fun With Physics

If you like physics — and slow-motion footage of science experiments — you’ll enjoy this very cool BBC video that recreates a legendary experiment by Galileo Galilei.

According to the story, Galileo began dropping objects of different weights from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Whether heavy cannonballs, lighter musket balls, or objects made of gold, silver, or wood, they all hit the ground at the same time.  Galileo therefore realized that gravity affects all objects and accelerates them at the same rate.

The BBC recreation takes the experiment one step farther, by dropping a bowling ball and some flouncy ostrich feathers.  They do it first in regular atmosphere, where air resistance causes the feathers to drift gently to the ground, and then when the air has been pumped from the room to create a vacuum.  It’s jaw-dropping to watch the feather and the bowling ball fall, in slow motion, at exactly the same rate and then crash to the ground.

There’s an Ohio connection to this story about Galileo, science, and the BBC, too:  the room where the BBC does the experiment at the NASA Space Power Facility in Sandusky, Ohio, which features the largest vacuum chamber in the world.

Gravity

Gravity is one of those films where you are acutely aware of all of the components of moviemaking:  cinematography, sound, special effects, acting, props.  All play key roles in making this space thriller a real gut-punch of a movie that sticks with you.

The story line is simple.  Astronauts are working on equipment in space when disaster strikes, and they have to figure out what to do.  They’re cut off from the world and alone in an impossibly hostile environment.  And that’s where all of the elements of the cinema arts come in.  In these days of blasting soundtracks, how many movies feature absolute silence, or only the sounds of panicky breathing, to help tell the story?  In these days of explosions and superhero epics, how many films require you to watch tiny things, like ice crystals forming on a space helmet?

The zero-gravity environment of space is a perfect setting for jaw-dropping technical wizardry, and Gravity doesn’t disappoint.  The weightlessness special effects looked spot on and, in the case of a tear forming into a tiny drop of water and floating toward the camera, moved the story forward.  Equally impressive was the camera positioning and sets that gave a true sense of the claustrophobic nature of spacecraft and their tininess against the vastness of the universe.

George Clooney is perfectly cast as the wisecracking veteran who falls back on years of astronaut training to develop a game plan on how to respond to the crisis.  Sandra Bullock is a revelation as the first-time space voyager who must draw upon the will to live as she faces challenge after challenge.   Bullock shows an emotional range I didn’t think she had.  And while the physics of their space adventure may be sketchy, thanks to the actors the human story rings true.

Gravity is well worth the price of a ticket.  Just be sure to budget time afterward when you can talk about “how did they do that?”