Galileo Unbound

In June of 1633 Galileo was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to house arrest for what remained of his life. He was a renaissance Prometheus, bound for giving knowledge to humanity. With little to do, and allowed few visitors, he at last had the uninterrupted time to finish his life’s labor. When Two New Sciences was published in 1638, it contained the seeds of the science of motion that would mature into a grand and abstract vision that permeates all science today. In this way, Galileo was unbound, not by Hercules, but by his own hand as he penned the introduction to his work:

. . . what I consider more important, there have been opened up to this vast and most excellent science, of which my work is merely the beginning, ways and means by which other minds more acute than mine will explore its remote corners.

            Galileo Galilei (1638) Two New Sciences


Galileo Unbound: A Path Across Life, the Universe and Everything (Oxford University Press) publishes today (Sept. 26, 2018). It explores the continuous thread from Galileo’s discovery of the parabolic trajectory to modern dynamics and complex systems. It is a history of expanding dimension and increasing abstraction, until today we speak of entangled quantum particles moving among many worlds, and we envision our lives as trajectories through spaces of thousands of dimensions. Remarkably, common themes persist that predict the evolution of species as readily as the orbits of planets. Galileo laid the foundation upon which Newton built a theory of dynamics that could capture the trajectory of the moon through space using the same physics that controlled the flight of a cannon ball. Late in the nineteenth-century, concepts of motion expanded into multiple dimensions, and in the 20th century geometry became the cause of motion rather than the result when Einstein envisioned the fabric of space-time warped by mass and energy, causing light rays to bend past the Sun. Possibly more radical was Feynman’s dilemma of quantum particles taking all paths at once—setting the stage for the modern fields of quantum field theory and quantum computing. Yet as concepts of motion have evolved, one thing has remained constant—the need to track ever more complex changes and to capture their essence—to find patterns in the chaos as we try to predict and control our world. Today’s ideas of motion go far beyond the parabolic trajectory, but even Galileo might recognize the common thread that winds through all these motions, drawing them together into a unified view that gives us the power to see, at least a little, through the mists shrouding the future.


To read more: Galileo Unbound: A Path Across Life, the Universe and Everything by David D. Nolte (Oxford University Press, Sept. 26, 2018). Available at


Huygens’ Tautochrone

In February of 1662, Pierre de Fermat wrote a paper Synthesis ad refractiones that explained Descartes-Snell’s Law of light refraction by finding the least time it took for light to travel between two points. This famous approach is now known as Fermat’s principle, and it motivated other searches for minimum principles. A few years earlier, in 1656, Christiaan Huygens had invented the pendulum clock [1], and he began a ten-year study of the physics of the pendulum. He was well aware that the pendulum clock does not keep exact time—as the pendulum swings wider, the period of oscillation slows down. He began to search for a path of the pendular mass that would keep the period the same (and make pendulum clocks more accurate), and he discovered a trajectory along which a mass would arrive at the same position in the same time no matter where it was released on the curve. That such a curve could exist was truly remarkable, and it promised to make highly accurate time pieces.

It made minimization problems a familiar part of physics—they became part of the mindset, leading ultimately to the principle of least action.

This curve is known as a tautochrone (literally: same or equal time) and Huygens provided a geometric proof in his Horologium Oscillatorium sive de motu pendulorum (1673) that the curve was a cycloid. A cycloid is the curve traced by a point on the rim of a circular wheel as the wheel rolls without slipping along a straight line. Huygens invented such a pendulum in which the mass executed a cycloid curve. It was a mass on a flexible yet inelastic string that partially wrapped itself around a solid bumper on each half swing. In principle, whether the pendulum swung gently, or through large displacements, the time would be the same. Unfortunately, friction along the contact of the string with the bumper prevented the pendulum from achieving this goal, and the tautochronic pendulum did not catch on.


Fig. 1 Huygens’ isochronous pendulum.  The time it takes the pendulum bob to follow the cycloid arc is independent of the pendulum’s amplitude, unlike for the circular arc, as the pendulum slows down for larger excursions.

The solution of the tautochrone curve of equal time led naturally to a search for the curve of least time, known as the brachistochrone curve for a particle subject to gravity, like a bead sliding on a frictionless wire between two points. Johann Bernoulli published a challenge to find the brachistochrone in 1696 in the scientific journal Acta Eruditorum that had been founded in 1682 by Leibniz in Germany in collaboration with Otto Mencke. Leibniz envisioned the journal to be a place where new ideas in the natural sciences and mathematics could be published and disseminated rapidly, and it included letters and commentaries, acting as a communication hub to help establish a community of scholars across Europe. In reality, it was the continental response to the Proceedings of the Royal Society in England.  Naturally, the Acta and the Proceedings would later take partisan sides in the priority dispute between Leibniz and Newton for the development of the calculus.

When Bernoulli published his brachistochrone challenge in the June issue of 1696, it was read immediately by the leading mathematicians of the day, many of whom took up the challenge and replied. The problem was solved and published in the May 1697 issue of the Acta by no less than five correspondents, including Johann Bernoulli, Jakob Bernoulli (Johann’s brother), Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. Each of them varied in their approaches, but all found the same solution. Johann and Jakob each considered the problem as the path of a light beam in a medium whose speed varied with depth. Just as in the tautochrone, the solved curve was a cycloid. The path of fastest time always started with a vertical path that allowed the fastest acceleration, and the point of greatest depth always was at the point of greatest horizontal speed.

The brachistrochrone problem led to the invention of the variational calculus, with first steps by Jakob Bernoulli and later more rigorous approaches by Euler.  However, its real importance is that it made minimization problems a familiar part of physics—they became part of the mindset, leading ultimately to the principle of least action.

[1] Galileo conceived of a pendulum clock in 1641, and his son Vincenzo started construction, but it was never finished.  Huygens submitted and received a patent in 1657 for a practical escape mechanism on pendulum clocks that is still used today.




Descartes’ Odd Geometry

Rene Descartes was an unlikely candidate to revolutionize geometry. He began his career as a mercenary soldier, his mind wrapped around things like war and women, which are far from problems of existence and geometry. Descartes’ strange conversion from a life of action to a life of mind occurred on the night of November 10-11 in 1619 while he was bivouacked in an army encampment in Bavaria as a mercenary early in the Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648). On that night, Descartes dreamed that exact rational thought, even mathematical method, could be applied to problems of philosophy. This became his life’s work, and because he was a man of exceptional talent, he succeeded in exceptional ways.

Even Descartes’ footnotes were capable of launching new fields of thought.

Descartes left his mercenary employment and established himself in the free-thinking republic of the Netherlands which was ending the long process of casting off the yolk of Spanish rule towards the end of the Eighty Years War (1568—1648). In 1623, he settled in The Hague, a part of the republic that had been free of Spanish troops for many years, and after a brief absence (during which he witnessed the Siege of Rochelle by Cardinal Richelieu), he returned to the Netherlands in 1628, at the age of 32. He remained in the Netherlands, moving often, taking classes or teaching classes at the Universities of Leiden and Utrecht until 1649, when he was enticed away by Queen Christina of Sweden to colder climes and ultimately to his death.


Descartes’ original curve (AC), constructed on non-orthogonal (oblique) x and y coordinates (La Géométrie, 1637)

Descartes’ years in the Netherlands were the most productive epoch of his life as he created his philosophy and pursued his dream’s promise. He embarked on an ambitious project to codify his rational philosophy to gain a full understanding of natural philosophy. He called this work Treatise on the World, known in short as Le Monde, and it quite naturally adopted Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the solar system, which by that time had become widely accepted in learned circles even before Galileo’s publication in 1632 of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. However, when Galileo was convicted in 1633 of suspicion of heresy (See Galileo Unbound, Oxford University Press, 2018), Descartes abruptly abandoned his plans to publish Le Monde, despite being in the Netherlands where he was well beyond the reach of the Church. It was, after all, the Dutch publisher Elzevir who published Galileo’s last work on the Two Sciences in 1638 when no Italian publishers would touch it. However, Descartes remained a devout Catholic throughout his life and had no desire to oppose its wishes. Despite this setback, Descartes continued to work on less controversial parts of his project, and in 1637 he published three essays preceded by a short introduction.

The introduction was called the Discourse on the Method (which contained his famous cogito ergo sum), and the three essays were La Dioptrique on optics, Les Météores on atmosphere and weather and finally La Géométrie on geometry in which he solved a problem posed by Pappus of Alexandria in the fourth century AD. Descartes sought to find a fundamental set of proven truths that would serve as the elements one could use in a deductive method to derive higher-level constructs. It was partially as an exercise in deductive reasoning that he sought to solve the classical mathematics problem posed by Pappus. La Géométrie was published as an essay following the much loftier Discourse, so even Descartes’ footnotes were capable of launching new fields of thought. The new field is called analytical geometry, also known as Cartesian or coordinate geometry, in which algebra is applied to geometric problems. Today, coordinates and functions are such natural elements of mathematics and physics, that it is odd to think that they emerged as demonstrations of abstract philosophy.

Bibliography:  R. Descartes, D. E. Smith, and M. L. Latham, The geometry of René Descartes. Chicago: Open Court Pub. Co., 1925.


A Wealth of Motions: Six Generations in the History of the Physics of Motion


Since Galileo launched his trajectory, there have been six broad generations that have traced the continuing development of concepts of motion. These are: 1) Universal Motion; 2) Phase Space; 3) Space-Time; 4) Geometric Dynamics; 5) Quantum Coherence; and 6) Complex Systems. These six generations were not all sequential, many evolving in parallel over the centuries, borrowing from each other, and there surely are other ways one could divide up the story of dynamics. But these six generations capture the grand concepts and the crucial paradigm shifts that are Galileo’s legacy, taking us from Galileo’s trajectory to the broad expanses across which physicists practice physics today.

Universal Motion emerged as a new concept when Isaac Newton proposed his theory of universal gravitation by which the force that causes apples to drop from trees is the same force that keeps the Moon in motion around the Earth, and the Earth in motion around the Sun. This was a bold step because even in Newton’s day, some still believed that celestial objects obeyed different laws. For instance, it was only through the work of Edmund Halley, a contemporary and friend of Newton’s, that comets were understood to travel in elliptical orbits obeying the same laws as the planets. Universal Motion included ideas of momentum from the start, while concepts of energy and potential, which fill out this first generation, took nearly a century to develop in the hands of many others, like Leibniz and Euler and the Bernoullis. This first generation was concluded by the masterwork of the Italian-French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who also planted the seed of the second generation.

The second generation, culminating in the powerful and useful Phase Space, also took more than a century to mature. It began when Lagrange divorced dynamics from geometry, establishing generalized coordinates as surrogates to directions in space. Ironically, by discarding geometry, Lagrange laid the foundation for generalized spaces, because generalized coordinates could be anything, coming in any units and in any number, each coordinate having its companion velocity, doubling the dimension for every freedom. The Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann expanded the number of dimensions to the scale of Avogadro’s number of particles, and he discovered the conservation of phase space volume, an invariance of phase space that stays the same even as 1023 atoms (Avogadro’s number) in ideal gases follow their random trajectories. The idea of phase space set the stage for statistical mechanics and for a new probabilistic viewpoint of mechanics that would extend into chaotic motions.

The French mathematician Henri Poincaré got a glimpse of chaotic motion in 1890 as he rushed to correct an embarrassing mistake in his manuscript that had just won a major international prize. The mistake was mathematical, but the consequences were profoundly physical, beginning the long road to a theory of chaos that simmered, without boiling, for nearly seventy years until computers became common lab equipment. Edward Lorenz of MIT, working on models of the atmosphere in the late 1960s, used one of the earliest scientific computers to expose the beauty and the complexity of chaotic systems. He discovered that the computer simulations were exponentially sensitive to the initial conditions, and the joke became that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause hurricanes in the Atlantic. In his computer simulations, Lorenz discovered what today is known as the Lorenz butterfly, an example of something called a “strange attractor”. But the term chaos is a bit of a misnomer, because chaos theory is primarily about finding what things are shared in common, or are invariant, among seemingly random-acting systems.

The third generation in concepts of motion, Space-Time, is indelibly linked with Einstein’s special theory of relativity, but Einstein was not its originator. Space-time was the brain child of the gifted but short-lived Prussian mathematician Hermann Minkowski, who had been attracted from Königsberg to the mathematical powerhouse at the University in Göttingen, Germany around the turn of the 20th Century by David Hilbert. Minkowski was an expert in invariant theory, and when Einstein published his special theory of relativity in 1905 to explain the Lorentz transformations, Minkowski recognized a subtle structure buried inside the theory. This structure was related to Riemann’s metric theory of geometry, but it had the radical feature that time appeared as one of the geometric dimensions. This was a drastic departure from all former theories of motion that had always separated space and time: trajectories had been points in space that traced out a continuous curve as a function of time. But in Minkowski’s mind, trajectories were invariant curves, and although their mathematical representation changed with changing point of view (relative motion of observers), the trajectories existed in a separate unchanging reality, not mere functions of time, but eternal. He called these trajectories world lines. They were static structures in a geometry that is today called Minkowski space. Einstein at first was highly antagonistic to this new view, but he relented, and later he so completely adopted space-time in his general theory that today Minkowski is almost forgotten, his echo heard softly in expressions of the Minkowski metric that is the background to Einstein’s warped geometry that bends light and captures errant space craft.

The fourth generation in the development of concepts of motion, Geometric Dynamics, began when an ambitious French physicist with delusions of grandeur, the historically ambiguous Pierre Louis Maupertuis, returned from a scientific boondoggle to Lapland where he measured the flatness of the Earth in defense of Newtonian physics over Cartesian. Skyrocketed to fame by the success of the expedition, he began his second act by proposing the Principle of Least Action, a principle by which all motion seeks to be most efficient by taking a geometric path that minimizes a physical quantity called action. In this principle, Maupertuis saw both a universal law that could explain all of physical motion, as well as a path for himself to gain eternal fame in the company of Galileo and Newton. Unfortunately, his high hopes were dashed through personal conceit and nasty intrigue, and most physicists today don’t even recognize his name. But the idea of least action struck a deep chord that reverberates throughout physics. It is the first and fundamental example of a minimum principle, of which there are many. For instance, minimum potential energy identifies points of system equilibrium, and paths of minimum distances are geodesic paths. In dynamics, minimization of the difference between potential and kinetic energies identifies the dynamical paths of trajectories, and minimization of distance through space-time warped by mass and energy density identifies the paths of falling objects.

Maupertuis’ fundamentally important idea was picked up by Euler and Lagrange, expanding it through the language of differential geometry. This was the language of Bernhard Riemann, a gifted and shy German mathematician whose mathematical language was adopted by physicists to describe motion as a geodesic, the shortest path like a great-circle route on the Earth, in an abstract dynamical space defined by kinetic energy and potentials. In this view, it is the geometry of the abstract dynamical space that imposes Galileo’s simple parabolic form on freely falling objects. Einstein took this viewpoint farther than any before him, showing how mass and energy warped space and how free objects near gravitating bodies move along geodesic curves defined by the shape of space. This brought trajectories to a new level of abstraction, as space itself became the cause of motion. Prior to general relativity, motion occurred in space. Afterwards, motion was caused by space. In this sense, gravity is not a force, but is like a path down which everything falls.

The fifth generation of concepts of motion, Quantum Coherence, increased abstraction yet again in the comprehension of trajectories, ushering in difficult concepts like wave-particle duality and quantum interference. Quantum interference underlies many of the counter-intuitive properties of quantum systems, including the possibility for quantum systems to be in two or more states at the same time, and for quantum computers to crack unbreakable codes. But this new perspective came with a cost, introducing fundamental uncertainties that are locked in a battle of trade-offs as one measurement becomes more certain and others becomes more uncertain.

Einstein distrusted Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, not that he disagreed with its veracity, but he felt it was more a statement of ignorance than a statement of fundamental unknowability. In support of Einstein, Schrödinger devised a thought experiment that was meant to be a reduction to absurdity in which a cat is placed in a box with a vial of poison that would be broken if a quantum particle decays. The cruel fate of Schrödinger’s cat, who might or might not be poisoned, hinges on whether or not someone opens the lid and looks inside. Once the box is opened, there is one world in which the cat is alive and another world in which the cat is dead. These two worlds spring into existence when the box is opened—a bizarre state of affairs from the point of view of a pragmatist. This is where Richard Feynman jumped into the fray and redefined the idea of a trajectory in a radically new way by showing that a quantum trajectory is not a single path, like Galileo’s parabola, but the combined effect of the quantum particle taking all possible paths simultaneously. Feynman established this new view of quantum trajectories in his thesis dissertation under the direction of John Archibald Wheeler at Princeton. By adapting Maupertuis’ Principle of Least Action to quantum mechanics, Feynman showed how every particle takes every possible path—simultaneously—every path interfering in such as way that only the path with the most constructive interference is observed. In the quantum view, the deterministic trajectory of the cannon ball evaporates into a cloud of probable trajectories.

In our current complex times, the sixth generation in the evolution of concepts of motion explores Complex Systems. Lorenz’s Butterfly has more to it than butterflies, because Life is the greatest complex system of our experience and our existence. We are the end result of a cascade of self-organizing events that began half a billion years after Earth coalesced out of the nebula, leading to the emergence of consciousness only about 100,000 years ago—a fact that lets us sit here now and wonder about it all. That we are conscious is perhaps no accident. Once the first amino acids coagulated in a muddy pool, we have been marching steadily uphill, up a high mountain peak in a fitness landscape. Every advantage a species gained over its environment and over its competitors exerted a type of pressure on all the other species in the ecosystem that caused them to gain their own advantage.

The modern field of evolutionary dynamics spans a wide range of scales across a wide range of abstractions. It treats genes and mutations on DNA in much the same way it treats the slow drift of languages and the emergence of new dialects. It treats games and social interactions the same way it does the evolution of cancer. Evolutionary dynamics is the direct descendant of chaos theory that turned butterflies into hurricanes, but the topics it treats are special to us as evolved species, and as potential victims of disease. The theory has evolved its own visualizations, such as the branches in the tree of life and the high mountain tops in fitness landscapes separated by deep valleys. Evolutionary dynamics draws, in a fundamental way, on dynamic processes in high dimensions, without which it would be impossible to explain how something as complex as human beings could have arisen from random mutations.

These six generations in the development of dynamics are not likely to stop, and future generations may arise as physicists pursue the eternal quest for the truth behind the structure of reality.