The Physics of Hell

inferno[Image: Dante’s great cyclotron of souls in the Inferno, a different sort of Hadron Collider; engraving by Gustave Doré].

In the context of all this talk about LIGO and gravitational waves, it’s interesting to look back at a 2011 article from the Boston Globe about an unexpected source of inspiration for Galileo Galilei.

“Galileo’s most important ideas might have their roots not in the real world, but in a fictional one,” we read, at least according to an argument “that Mount Holyoke College physics professor Mark Peterson has been developing for the past several years: specifically, that one of Galileo’s crucial contributions to physics came from measuring the hell of Dante’s Inferno. Or rather, from disproving its measurements.”

Ever since its 1314 publication, scholars had toiled to map the physical features of Dante’s Inferno—the blasted valleys and caverns, the roiling rivers of fire. What Galileo said, put simply, is that many commonly accepted dimensions did not stand up to mathematical scrutiny. Using complex geometrical analysis, he attacked a leading scholar’s version of the Inferno’s structure, pointing out that his description of the infernal architecture—such as the massive cylinders descending to the center of the Earth—would, in real life, collapse under their own weight.

Although Galileo himself would apparently soon realize that parts of his own debunking needed further debunking, Peterson points out that, in “applying mathematical models to Dante’s hell, Galileo was laying the groundwork for what would become theoretical physics.”

Peterson’s original 2002 paper on the matter is called “Galileo’s Discovery of Scaling Laws” (PDF).

The details of the Boston Globe article have been picked apart elsewhere, but the accuracy of its various historical claims is not what interests me; what seems worth posting about here, rather, is the wonderfully bizarre possibility that a culture could develop such an intense and otherworldly vision of eternal torture and damnation that it eventually inspires a new branch of physics.

stellar[Image: After Hell, stars; from Dante’s Inferno, engraving by Gustave Doré].

In fact, one could easily imagine the strange molten geologies of such a landscape, this burning wasteland of semi-liquid rock, cut through with irradiated rivers and lakes, its temperatures on par with something more like a nuclear explosion, or perhaps just the electromagnetic atmospherics of a microwave; and one could just as easily imagine the mind-bendingly complex interpretive effort required to deduce actual, mathematically rigorous physical laws from such a nightmarish environment. Imagine scholars of Hell, sitting around immense tables made of black slate, calculating atmospheric pressures and the melting points of whole continents.

The idea, as well, that an entirely secular present-day science might actually have hidden within it a secret historical lineage dating back to descriptive measurements of Hell is, at the very least, a compelling framework for a work of speculative fiction. The mathematics used to describe the insides of stars, for example, actually originating with someone’s thesis on the burning points of angels, or the uncanny gravity of black holes traced back to field equations first written by someone trying to map the unstable angles of cliffs lining the uranium mines of the Inferno.

Of course, all of this could be theologically lightened quite a bit—a new branch of mathematics concerned, instead, with the idyllic meteorology of Paradise—but I guess I’ve always just been more interested in Hell.

Read the original Boston Globe article, as well as its rejoinder.

(Article spotted via @davidbmetcalfe).

1 thought on “The Physics of Hell”

  1. This puts me in mind of Philip Pullman’s ‘experimental theology’ (sc. physics) in His Dark Materials. (And of course the title of that book comes from Milton.

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