A Use of Old Cannonballs

Galileo was alone on the top of the tower. He’d asked his friends to stay away from his experiment. He’d experienced enough failure in the past to worry that his latest venture might prove to be embarrassing and he was reluctant to take their kind offer of help, even if he needed it on the ground as the cannonballs came crashing down.

Now that the fateful moment had arrived, he hesitated. He knew that he would return the cannonballs after the experiment, no worse the wear for their fall, but the psychological effect on his own psyche might not be so easy to put back on his grandmother’s shelf.

Many of his friends said that he was too sensitive. That he insisted on viewing each experiment as the one which would make or break his career, that he didn’t believe his latest obsession would be quickly replaced by another, or that he dabbled in a science so rare or refined that few knew what he was doing let alone the implications of his evidence. Galileo knew he took the entire enterprise too seriously. He’d tried instead going out to cafés and engaging strangers in simple conversation, but that was ultimately unsatisfying. Before the solemn tolling of the church bell announced that an hour had passed, he was creeping back to his lab, eager to try his hand on the movements of weights and the calculations which would prove the moon might have been spun up by a divine hand but had suffered collisions since.

In part, that idea—that his life’s work was no more significant than the soft opinions of the pigeons above his head—stayed his hand. Those friends who had ignored his request waited patiently on the ground below and stared at his tiny figure 000000overhead. They could just see the top of his head past the railing of the tower, and such was the tilt of the poorly constructed building that he couldn’t hide from their perspective. Galileo took another deep breath. The stairs were too steep. He needed to walk more, to climb more, to get out of the lab. He was in bad shape physically, and not a young man anymore, so he hesitated because he was panting from the climb.

Even as he formed the excuse, he knew it was a lie. His breath was ragged from nerves more than the many steps. He’d made the climb a dozen times to take measurements to prepare for the experiment. He knew he was afraid of failure. Afraid that his heavy cannonball would arrive on the ground slightly before the lighter one, and thus show the world that universal laws were holding in the face of his hubris, show the world that he was a fool. That even Aristotle, slobbering over his attempt to cut a pie into smaller and smaller pieces that were still parts of a pie, was right, and that he, Galileo, standing on top of a tower that exposed to the entire world the faults in Italian architectural achievement, was a fool.

Galileo made a great show of shifting his bag on his shoulder. His friends had offered to send him aloft with a servant who would carry the bag, but even though Galileo hadn’t prepared his own meal in years, had servants pour his bath and wash his clothes, he insisted that he alone stumble on the uneven floor with the unwieldy bag.

On the ground his friends, their eyes squinting at the sun, waited while Galileo’s tiny figure set his bag on the tilting floor. Galileo took another deep breath, listened again for approaching steps—for he was afraid the church had gotten wind of his experiment—and then untied the flaps that had hid the cannonballs from his grandmother when he’d crept out of her 000000house. He’d never thought to ask his grandmother why she collected cannonballs when he was young and once he became an adult he was unaccountably shy about the question.

One of the straps was worn and the rope caught, and in his frustration he finally cut it. Dismayed slightly at his impatience, he lifted out the one pound shot. He tried to place it on the railing for safekeeping as he reached for the ten pound ball, and annoyingly it tried to roll onto the floor. He thought again that he should have tied the two together as he’d originally proposed. If the heavier weight fell faster, he had decided, then it should pull the string taut between it and the lighter ball. But if both balls were tried together then they would be a unit, then they would be heavier, and fall even faster joined together. Setting aside the implications of the original thought experiment, Galileo wished for a string, as he tried to hold the small ball on the railing with his elbow and at the same time lift the larger ball from his bag with one hand.

It proved to be too heavy for his grip, so he bent to grab it with both hands, and thus set free the untended ball on the railing. It fell to the floor, and before he could grab it, it set off along the tilted floor for the stairs. Cursing, Galileo dropped the ten pound cannonball into the bag, and ran after the smaller shot. It picked up speed and sped for the top step; even as he ran, Galileo thought about how it was likely enacting some other law of motion, such as the contrary nature of matter, that made it defy all attempts to make it behave in a reasonable fashion. The law of contrary motion, he decided, as he scooped the ball up just before it fell the ten floors down the stairs where it would have likely killed an unsuspecting precursor to a tourist.

By the time he returned to the rail, Galileo had placed the ball more securely in his pocket. He waved at his friends 000000below to reassure them in case his absence at the rail had been noticed, and realized grimly that their numbers had increased. Was that another law? A direct correlation between the potential for embarrassment of the experiment and the size of the crowd. He muttered to himself while his pocket swayed and he reached into his bag for the other cannonball. He was ready now, his hand steadied on the railing against the weight and his other hand fishing in his pocket for the ball.

When his fingers didn’t meet the expected cold metal, he cursed quietly, fearing his voice might carry in the morning air, and then set the larger ball into the bag while his hand went questing through the maze that was his poorly repaired coat to where the smaller shot had disappeared into a hole in his pocket. When he finally located it against the seam, he met it from behind with his left hand, confined it so it couldn’t go adventuring again, and then pulled it from the swamp of tangled fabric.

The crowd below had grown even larger while he’d been fighting with his coat. He began to worry that they were thinking his nerves were betraying him. Some of his friends had said as much when he’d slipped into a pub for a cognac, but he’d laughed them off by saying he needed the spirits for the climb.

Now that he was in possession of the small cannonball again he debated how to hold it while he grappled with the larger shot. Finally, he placed one beside the other and tried to lift them together. True to his more theoretical suspicions, they weighed even more together and were slippery. They rubbed against each other in a grating way that reminded him, excruciatingly, 000000of two eggs held in the same hand. Grimacing, he let them fall again and then picked up the smaller shot, and, momentarily at a loss, put it in his mouth. As he bent for the other shot, he thought of how his grand experiment would look if there were observers, especially those from the church who were always inclined to humiliate anyone who disagreed with their guesses by reference to scientific observation. They would make much sport over his closed mouth; the ball grew slippery with salvia as he thought about it.

When he had the other ball balanced on the railing, and had plucked the smaller one from his teeth, Galileo was more confident in the way he appeared. He was a scientist, he said to himself. A serious investigator of natural phenomena. Far below some of his friends waved and cheered, but others in the growing crowd were ominously silent.

The wind dropped and the pigeons stopped their mindless cooing. Galileo felt as though the world was holding its breath. He hesitated again, the smaller ball wet in his sweaty fingers. He could go home. He could put the balls back into the sack and take them to the room where his grandmother kept her collection. He could leave town and get a small house near the coast. He needn’t expose himself like this.

Then, for the first time, it occurred to him he could cheat. He could ensure he’d be right by hesitating slightly before he let the heavier ball join the smaller one. Even if Aristotle, that pompous ass, had been correct all along, Galileo would prove him to be wrong in front of everyone. Galileo’s back stiffened at the thought. He didn’t need to cheat. The natural world was on his side.

He lifted his hands out before him, clearly visible from below, his right arm trembling slightly from the weight, and then let the balls go at the same time. 000000Such was his relief that it was finally over, he almost collapsed. Instead, he stood at the rail, defying his temptation to run for the stairs. When he’d imagined this moment he’d thought of himself scurrying all the way to the bottom of the stairs and arriving just as the balls hit the ground, thus proving for all concerned that he’d been right about the way objects were attracted by a mass such as the earth.

Instead, he watched his friend’s faces. Their elation was visible even from ten stories above. Galileo lifted his bag and then trudged down the stairs. The digger in the ditch must feel this type of satisfaction, he thought to himself. The joy in a day’s work come to a close. Ignoring that the sun was still low on the horizon and only slowly rising, Galileo joined his celebrating friends and carefully brushed the dirt from the cannonballs and put them back into his bag. The burden was light now, and when he looked around at the cheering faces, he was elated enough that he didn’t notice those who hadn’t cheered, those who had vanished like insects when he entered a room at night with a lit taper.

Only later at the bar, when he’d had too much to drink and had lost track of his bag in the good-natured shoving and laughter, was Galileo forcibly reminded of the silent watchers. They hadn’t appreciated his arcane experiment as much as one could reasonably expect. Several enforcers from the inquisition bade him come as they stood in the doorway, deigning to enter. In the sudden silence his friends’ laughter faltered and Galileo walked to the door, his bag forgotten.

Some of his friends made as if to protest, and a few hands grasped at his sleeve, and Galileo was reminded of the strange attraction and repulsion of the lodestone. 000000The eyes of the officials from the inquisition gleamed as if they knew their repulsive force was so strong none would gainsay them, and while some weaker force which wouldn’t be discovered for two hundred years plucked at his coat, Galileo knew it was of little use against his new enemy. The force of the lodestone weakens with distance, Galileo thought. And nonferrous materials are unaffected. Steeling himself for the coming questions, Galileo went from the warm humidity of the welcoming bar into the harsh sunlight of the Pisa midday sun.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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