Leonardo da Vinci’s Ahead-of-His-Time Gravity Experiments
Leonardo da Vinci, who lived from 1452 to 1519, was a visionary who was way ahead of his time in his investigations of the concept of gravity.
Galileo Galilei didn’t postulate until 1604 that the distance travelled by a falling object was proportional to the square of the elapsed time, and it wasn’t until the late 17th century that Sir Isaac Newton expanded on this idea to develop a universal law of gravitation, which described how objects attract each other.
Da Vinci encountered numerous challenges in his research, including the limited tools available to him. For example, he lacked a way of accurately measuring the time it took for objects to fall.
His pioneering research was first discovered by Professor Gharib in the Codex Arundel, a compilation of da Vinci’s writings on topics that included science, art, and personal experiences.
At the beginning of 2017, Professor Gharib was studying da Vinci’s techniques for visualizing flow in order to discuss them with his graduate students. While examining the Codex Arundel, he noticed a set of drawings depicting triangles formed by particles pouring out of a jar, similar to sand.
One particular drawing caught his attention because it contained the phrase “Equatione di Moti” on the hypotenuse of an isosceles right triangle. He became intrigued by what da Vinci meant by this expression.
In his writings, da Vinci detailed an experiment in which a water jug was moved parallel to the ground in a straight line, releasing either water or a granular substance, probably sand, along the way.
His notes demonstrate that he was aware that the sand or water would not fall at a constant rate, but rather would accelerate, and that once it was no longer influenced by the pitcher, its acceleration would be entirely downward due to gravity.
Additionally, da Vinci observed that the horizontal acceleration of the material stopped, implying that there was no more external force being applied to it. These findings were remarkable considering the time during which they were made and reveal da Vinci’s brilliance in both the fields of science and engineering.
If the water pitcher moves at a steady pace, the path created by the falling material is a straight, vertical line, with no triangle being formed.
When the water pitcher accelerates at a constant rate, the path taken by the material creates a straight, slanted line, which eventually forms a triangle.
In a critical diagram, da Vinci demonstrated that if the pitcher’s acceleration is equal to the acceleration of the falling material due to gravity, it results in an equilateral triangle. This is the diagram that initially drew Professor Gharib’s attention, with the accompanying phrase “Equatione di Moti,” which translates to “equalization (equivalence) of motions.”
Da Vinci aimed to create a mathematical description of this acceleration, but according to the study’s authors, he didn’t quite achieve it.
To investigate da Vinci’s approach, Professor Gharib and his co-authors employed computer simulations to recreate the water vase experiment. This experiment uncovered da Vinci’s error. The computer models showed that while the falling material does indeed create triangles, they are not perfectly equilateral, as da Vinci’s notes suggested.
According to Dr. Chris Roh from Cornell University, da Vinci attempted to model the relationship between distance and time for a falling object, but he used an incorrect equation that involved distance being proportional to 2 to the t power instead of t squared.
Despite the incorrect equation, the study’s authors discovered that da Vinci used it in a way that produced results that were consistent with the correct equation for the time interval of up to four units of time.
Professor Gharib pointed out that there is no evidence to suggest that da Vinci conducted additional experiments or delved further into this issue.
Nonetheless, the fact that da Vinci was grappling with this problem and attempting to solve it in the early 1500s demonstrates the exceptional level of foresight and innovative thinking he possessed.
Da Vinci’s insights into the concept of gravity were significantly ahead of his time, and it is remarkable that he was able to consider and explore these ideas without the benefit of modern scientific tools and technology. His work serves as a testament to the power of human curiosity and ingenuity, as well as the importance of continual experimentation and refinement in scientific inquiry.
Morteza Gharib et al. Leonardo da Vinci’s Visualization of Gravity as a Form of Acceleration. Leonardo, published online November 28, 2022; doi: 10.1162/leon_a_02322