Our European tour has taken us to museums and exhibits in the most unexpected places. From the excavations at Pompeii to the D’Orsay Museum in Paris, we’ve seen signs of civilization and urbanization that far out date the founding of our native nation.
One of my favorites so far has been the Galileo Museum in Florence. Long before Galileo Galilei was censored by Pope Urban VIII for advocating Copernicus and heliocentrism (and perhaps also for making the Pope look like a fool), the scientist was a valuable asset to refuting Aristotelian misconceptions about the shapes and motions of the universe. We use Galileo’s innovations when we calculate ballistic motion: we attribute to him the idea that a free falling object (for example, a cannonball) has a separate and easily-calculable “forward” and “falling” motion.
I know I’m nerding out but this stuff can be really cool when you’re wondering how anybody got by in life without calculators and computers! The coolest part of the museum was easily the giant terrestrial and celestial globes dating back to the Medici era, some 4 meters in diameter, in addition to the handheld sundials and astrolabes. Forget pocket watches and clocktowers; the museum’s first rooms take you back to a time when people would carry a compass and sundial if they wanted to watch the time while they picnic.
Where these problems of time really came in handy was in navigation—to determine their latitude, sailors had to compare times from the position of the sun and from a pendulum clock that had been set from their port (they would measure the differences in time to find their time zone)—and thus latitude was far more important then than now. There’s something to think about when you’re wondering why we bother dividing our maps anymore with GPS. It’s a bit outdated but degrees of latitude and longitude were the key to finding your way home just 500 years ago…