Have you noticed the little ads for the Vatican Observatory Foundation’s “Faith & Science” resource? It is a collection of articles, videos, book excerpts, selections from this blog, and even whole books that pertain to faith and science. One thing you will find there is an article from the magazine Physics Today, written by Yours Truly, on Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, S. J., and his experiments regarding gravity. The story is fascinating. Fr. Riccioli was the first person to try to conduct experiments to accurately measure gravity. He did his experiments in the 1640’s, using various towers in Bologna, Italy (all of which are still there, by the way). He used some very ingenious techniques to measure time in these experiments. He got all sorts of fellow Jesuits to help him. He obtained very accurate results for the value of the downward acceleration caused by gravity, or ‘g’ (students in introductory physics classes everywhere do experiments to measure ‘g’), all while using little equipment other than his innovative brain! And, while his results were not what he expected, and were, in a way, not what he wanted, he was excited by them, and shared them, anyway.
Click here to go to the “Story of ‘g’” entry on the Faith & Science pages and check out Fr. Riccioli’s story.
I became better acquainted with Fr. Riccioli last March (2017), when Vatican Observatory Director Br. Guy Consolmagno and Vatican Observatory Foundation Development Director Katie Steinke led a week-long tour of astronomy-related sites in Italy. They had invited me to accompany them on the tour, to provide some extra history of astronomy expertise. I was happy to go, not only for all the obvious reasons (it was a fantastic experience, as you might imagine), but also because many of the places on the tour were connected to material that is part of my Astronomy 101 classes at my college (Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky). I could serve the tour as “the flowing font of history of astronomy knowledge,” and also serve my students by bringing them along on the trip “virtually” (by means of a video camera and YouTube). Bologna was not on the V.O. tour, but since I was in Italy I did manage to make it there and visit the places where Fr. Riccioli did his work, especially the Asinelli tower (which is really, really tall). Below is a link to my “Riccioli’s Gravity Laboratory: Towers in Bologna” video. It is made for my students, but I think anyone who is interested in Fr. Riccioli and the story of ‘g’ will find it interesting (and amusing… let’s just say that the top of the Asinelli is a real hit with couples these days).