Galileo’s Inclined Planes

This post is based on the maths and ideas of Hahn’s Calculus in Context – which is probably the best mathematics book I’ve read in 20 years of studying and teaching mathematics.  Highly recommended for both students and teachers!

Hahn talks us though the mathematics, experiments and thought process of Galileo as he formulates his momentous theory that in free fall (ignoring air resistance) an object falling for t seconds will fall a distance of ct² where c is a constant.  This is counter-intuitive as we would expect the mass of an object to be an important factor in how far an object falls (i.e that a heavier object would fall faster).  Galileo also helped to overturned Aristotle’s ideas on motion.  Aristotle had argued that any object in motion would eventually stop, Galileo instead argued that with no friction a perfectly spherical ball once started rolling would roll forever.  Galileo’s genius was to combine thought experiments and real data to arrive at results that defy “common sense” – to truly understand the universe humans had to first escape from our limited anthropocentric perspective, and mathematics provided an opportunity to do this.

Inclined Planes

Galileo conducted experiments on inclined planes where he placed balls at different heights and then measured their projectile motion  when they left the ramp, briefly ran past the edge of a flat surface and then fell to the ground.  We can see the set up of one ramp above.  The ball starts at O, and we mark as h this height.  At an arbitrary point P we can see that there are 2 forces acting on the ball, F which is responsible for the ball rolling down the slope, and f, which is a friction force in the opposite direction.  At point P we can mark the downwards force mg acting on the ball.  We can then use some basic rules of parallel lines to note that the angles in triangle PCD are equal to triangle AOB.

Galileo’s times squared law of fall

We have the following equation for the total force acting on the ball at point P:

We also have the following relationship from physics, where m is the mass and a(t) the acceleration:

This therefore gives:

Next we can use trigonometry on triangle PCD to get an equation for F:

and so:

Next we can use another equation from physics which gives us the frictional force on a perfectly spherical, homogenous body rolling down a plane is:

So this gives:

We can then integrate to get velocity (our constant of integration is 0 because the velocity is 0 when t = 0)

and integrate again to get the distance travelled of the ball (again our constant of integration is 0):

When Galileo was conducting his experiments he did not know g, instead he noted that the relationship was of the form;

where c is a constant related to a specific incline.  This is a famous result called the times squared law of fall.  It shows that the distance travelled is independent of the mass and is instead related to the time of motion squared.

Velocity also independent of the angle of incline

Above we have shown that the distance travelled is independent of the mass – but in the equation it is still dependent on the angle of the incline.  We can go further and then show that the velocity of the ball is also independent of the angle of incline, and is only dependent on the height at which the ball starts from.

If we denote as t_b as the time when the ball reaches point A in our triangle we have:

This is equal to the distance from AO, so we can use trigonometry to define:

This can then be rearranged to give:

this is the time taken to travel from O to A.  We can the substitute this into the velocity equation we derived earlier to give the velocity at point A.  This is:

This shows that the velocity of the ball at point A is only dependent on the height and not the angle of incline or mass.  The logical extension of this is that if the angle of incline has no effect on the velocity, that this result would still hold as the angle of incline approaches and then reaches 90 degrees – i.e when the ball is in free fall.

Galileo used a mixture of practical experiments on inclined planes, mathematical calculations and thought experiments to arrive at his truly radical conclusion – the sign of a real genius!