365DaysDate: January 28, 2009


Title: Galileo Musings on Ariosto, Trajectories, and Trebuchets

Podcaster: Mark Thompson

Organization: Galileo 1610

Description: When Galileo returned from Florence to attend the wedding of his prized student, Prince Cosimo, in the summer of 1608, he embarked upon one of the most productive periods of his scientific career.  In addition to his studies on hydrostatics and motion, Galileo sought to solve a dual problem concerning parabolic trajectories and the strength of materials.  Following this brief explanation, the podcast will consist of a description of Galileo’s studies on projectiles, including some musings on Ariosto’s epic poem “Orlando Furioso.”

Bio: Mark Thompson, a professional cantor and amateur astronomer, has appeared as Galileo on radio, at community theatres and libraries, public schools, colleges and universities throughout the country.   He has performed as Galileo for civic organizations, astronomy association conventions, marketing and outreach programs as well as private events and parties since 1996.

Today’s Sponsor: This episode of ‘365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Astronomical Society, the major organization for professional astronomers in North America, whose members remind everyone that One Sky Connects Us All.  Find out more or join the AAS at


The year 1609 would prove to be one of the most productive periods of Galileo’s scientific career, but January did not portend a particularly auspicious beginning. Galileo was already suffering from an acute recurrence of rheumatoid arthritis which made it extremely difficult for him to write. To make matters worse, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany now prevailed upon him to draw a horoscope for her ailing husband, the Grand Duke Ferdinand.

Kepler once explained that “as every animal has been given by nature some means of getting a living, so too the astronomer has been furnished with astrology in order to enable him to live.” We will never know if Galileo agreed with his erstwhile friend, however, there is little doubt he had no choice but to oblige the request of the Medici family whose patronage he desperately sought. Moreover, Galileo would need to put a positive spin upon his calculations- no matter the outcome. Happily he predicted that the Grand Duke would recover quickly and enjoy a long and fruitful life. Four weeks later Ferdinand was dead. So much for Galileo’s career as an astrologer.

This minor faux pas, however, did not discourage Galileo in the least. He not only continued to refine his studies on motion but now began to concern himself with the parabolic trajectories of falling bodies and experiment with materials used to propel them. What type of wood, he mused, might be shaped in such a fashion as to be equally resistant to breakage at any point? How about yew? No, I don’t mean you- I mean yew. Y.E.W. Yew trees grew abundantly in Italy. Yew was much prized by archers for its tough, yet resilient qualities. As an accomplished musician and player of the lute, Galileo certainly knew about yew. It was cut into thin strips and glued to make the ribs which formed the bowl, or hollow rounded back of the lute. How was it possible to build a nearly weightless bowl- strong enough to resist over one hundred pounds of string tension pulled across the fingerboard by a severely-angled peg box- yet resonant enough to produce a delicate, beautiful sound? The lute maker had to be a gifted artisan indeed; well-skilled in the principles of geometry. That yew took life as an archery bow, but gave life as a lute, is a paradox of mythic proportions that could not have escaped Galileo. Neither is it a stretch of the imagination that he derived perhaps his inspiration from Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso.

But as a strong and justly tempered bow
Of Pyrmont steel, the more you do it bend,
Upon recoil doth give the bigger blow,
And doth with greater force the quarrel send.

“Whenever I enter into Orlando Furioso, it is as if a treasure room opens up before me, a regal gallery adorned with a hundred classical statues by the most renowned masters, with countless historical pictures-the very best ones by the most excellent painters-with a great number of vases, crystals, agates and other jewels, a festive hall full of everything that is rare, precious, admirable and perfect.”

I leave you with the parting words of friendship between Brandimarte, a warrior who has been mortally wounded, and his hero, Orlando. These words he uttered just before the end:

Remember me, Orlando, when you pray…

To you I commend my Fiordi-

but the ligi, he could not say.

E dirgli Orlando f ache ti raccordi, che ti raccordi.

Di men lo ra zion tue gratea dio.

Ne menti racco man do la mia Fiordi…

Ma dir non pot e ligi, e qui fi no.

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.