A Source Book in Mathematics, 1200-1800

Author: Galileo Galilei  | Date: 1939

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On Infinites and Infinitesimals

SALVIATI. . . . Now since we have arrived at paradoxes let us see if we cannot prove that within a finite extent it is possible to discover an infinite number of vacua. At the same time we shall at least reach a solution of the most remarkable of all that list of problems which Aristotle himself calls wonderful; I refer to his Questions in Mechanics.1 This solution may be no less clear and conclusive than that which he himself gives and quite different also from that so cleverly expounded by the most learned Monsignor di Guevara.2

First it is necessary to consider a proposition, not treated by others, but one upon which depends the solution of the problem and from which, if I mistake not, we shall derive other new and remarkable facts. For the sake of clearness let us draw an accurate figure [Fig. 1]. About G as a center describe an equiangular and equilateral polygon of any number of sides, say the hexagon

Fig. 1

ABCDEF. Similar to this and concentric with it, describe another smaller one which we shall call HIKLMN. Prolong the side AB, of the larger hexagon, indefinitely toward S; in like manner prolong the corresponding side HI of the smaller hexagon, in the same direction, so that the line HT is parallel to AS; and through the center draw the line GV parallel to the other two. This done, imagine the larger polygon to roll upon the line AS, carrying with it the smaller polygon. It is evident that, if the point B, the end of the side AB, remains fixed at the beginning of the rotation, the point A will rise and the point C will fall describing the arc CQ until the side BC coincides with the line BQ, equal to BC. But during this rotation the point I, on the smaller polygon, will rise above the line IT because IB is oblique to AS; and it will not again return to the line IT until the point C shall have reached the position Q. The point I, having described the arc IO above the line HT, will reach the position O at the same time the side IK assumes the position OP; but in the meantime the center G has traversed a path above GV and does not return to it until it has completed the arc GC. This step having been taken, the larger polygon has been brought to rest with its side BC coinciding with the line BQ while the side IK of the smaller polygon has been made to coincide with the line OP, having passed over the portion IO without touching it; also the center G will have reached the position C after having traversed all its course above the parallel line GV. And finally the entire figure will assume a position similar to the first, so that if we continue the rotation and come to the next step, the side DC of the larger polygon will coincide with the portion QX and the side KL of the smaller polygon, having first skipped the are PY, will fall on YZ, while the center still keeping above the line GV will return to it at R after having jumped the interval CR. At the end of one complete rotation the larger polygon will have traced upon the line AS, without break, six lines together equal to its perimeter; the lesser polygon will likewise have imprinted six lines equal to its perimeter, but separated by the interposition of five arcs, whose chords represent the parts of HT not touched by the polygon: the center G never reaches the line GV except at six points. From this it is clear that the space traversed by the smaller polygon is almost equal to that traversed by the larger, that is, the line HT approximates the line AS, differing from it only by the length of one chord of one of these arcs, provided we understand the line HT to include the five skipped arcs.

Now this exposition which I have given in the case of these hexagons must be understood to be applicable to all other polygons, whatever the number of sides, provided only they are similar, concentric, and rigidly connected, so that when the greater one rotates the lesser will also turn, however small it may be. You must also understand that the lines described by these two are nearly equal provided we include in the space traversed by the smaller one the intervals which are not touched by any part of the perimeter of this smaller polygon.

Let a large polygon of, say, one thousand sides make one complete rotation and thus lay off a line equal to its perimeter; at the same time the small one will pass over an approximately equal distance, made up of a thousand small portions each equal to one of its sides, but interrupted by a thousand spaces which, in contrast with the portions that coincide with the sides of the polygon, we may call empty. So far the matter is free from difficulty or doubt.

But now suppose that about any center, say A, we describe two concentric and rigidly connected circles; and suppose that from the points C and B, on their radii, there are drawn the tangents CE and BF and that through the center A the line AD is drawn parallel to them; then if the large circle makes one complete rotation along the line BF, equal not only to its circumference but also to the other two lines CE and AD, tell me what the smaller circle will do and also what the center will do. As to the center it will certainly traverse and touch the entire line AD while the circumference of the smaller circle will have measured off by its points of contact the entire line CE, just as was done by the above-mentioned polygons. The only difference is that the line HT was not at every point in contact with the perimeter of the smaller polygon, but there were left untouched as many vacant spaces as there were spaces coinciding with the sides. But here in the ease of the circles the circumference of the smaller one never leaves the line CE, so that no part of the latter is left untouched, nor is there ever a time when some point on the circle is not in contact with the straight line. How now can the smaller circle traverse a length greater than its circumference unless it go by jumps?

SAGREDO. It seems to me that one may say that just as the center of the circle, by itself, carried along the line AD is constantly in contact with it, although it is only a single point, so the points on the circumference of the smaller circle, carried along by the motion of the larger circle, would slide over some small parts of the line CE.

SALVIATI. There are two reasons why this cannot happen. First because there is no ground for thinking that one point of contact, such as that at C, rather than another, should slip over certain portions of the line CE. But if such slidings along CE did occur, they would be infinite in number since the points of contact (being mere points) are infinite in number: an infinite number of finite slips will however make an infinitely long line, while as a matter of fact the line CE is finite. The other reason is that as the greater circle, in its rotation, changes its point of contact continuously, the lesser circle must do the same because B is the only point from which a straight line can be drawn to A and pass through C. Accordingly the small circle must change its point of contact whenever the large one changes: no point of the small circle touches the straight line CE in more than one point. Not only so, but even in the rotation of the polygons there was no point on the perimeter of the smaller which coincided with more than one point on the line traversed by that perimeter; this is at once clear when you remember that the line IK is parallel to BC and that therefore IK will remain above IP until BC coincides with BQ, and that IK will not lie upon IP except at the very instant when BC occupies the position BQ; at this instant the entire line IK coincides with OP and immediately afterward rises above it.

SAGREDO. This is a very intricate matter. I see no solution. Pray explain it to us.

SALVIATI. Let us return to the consideration of the above-mentioned polygons whose behavior we already understand. Now in the case of polygons with 100,0003 sides, the line traversed by the perimeter of the greater, i.e., the line laid down by its 100,000 sides one after another, is equal to the line traced out by the 100,000 sides of the smaller, provided we include the 100,000 vacant spaces interspersed. So in the case of the circles, polygons having an infinitude of sides, the line traversed by the continuously distributed infinitude of sides is in the greater circle equal to the line laid down by the infinitude of sides in the smaller circle but with the exception that these latter alternate with empty spaces; and since the sides are not finite in number, but infinite, so also are the intervening empty spaces not finite but infinite The line traversed by the larger circle consists then of an infinite number of points which completely fill it, while that which is traced by the smaller circle consists of an infinite number of points which leave empty spaces and only partly fill the line. And here I wish you to observe that after resolving and dividing a line into a finite number of parts, that is, into a number which can be counted, it is not possible to arrange them again into a greater length than that which they occupied when they formed a continuum4 and were connected without the interposition of as many empty spaces. But if we consider the line resolved into an infinite number of infinitely small and indivisible parts, we shall be able to conceive the line extended indefinitely by the interposition, not of a finite, but of an infinite number of infinitely small indivisible empty spaces.

Now this which has been said concerning simple lines must be understood to hold also in the ease of surfaces and solid bodies, it being assumed that they are made up of an infinite, not a finite, number of atoms. Such a body once divided into a finite number of parts, it is impossible to reassemble them so as to occupy more space than before unless we interpose a finite number of empty spaces, that is to say, spaces free from the substance of which the solid is made. But if we imagine the body, by some extreme and final analysis, resolved into its primary elements, infinite in number, then we shall be able to think of them as indefinitely extended in space, not by the interposition of a finite, but of an infinite number of empty spaces. Thus one can easily imagine a small ball of gold expanded into a very large space without the introduction of a finite number of empty spaces, always provided the gold is made up of an infinite number of indivisible parts.

But to return to our subject, your previous discourse leaves with me many difficulties which I am unable to solve. First among these is that, if the circumferences of the two circles are equal to the two straight lines, CE and BF, the latter considered as a continuum, the former as interrupted with an infinity of empty points, I do not see how it is possible to say that the line AD described by the center, and made up of an infinity of points, is equal to this center which is a single point. Besides, this building up of lines out of points, divisibles out of indivisibles, and finites out of infinites, offers me an obstacle difficult to avoid; and the necessity of introducing a vacuum, so conclusively refuted by Aristotle, presents the same difficulty.

SALVIATI. These difficulties are real; and they are not the only ones. But let us remember that we axe dealing with infinities and indivisibles, both of which transcend our finite understanding, the former on account of their magnitude, the latter because of their smallness. In spite of this, men cannot refrain from discussing them, even though it must be done in a roundabout way.

How can a single point be equal to a line? Since I cannot do more at present I shall attempt to remove, or at least diminish, one improbability by introducing a similar or a greater one, just as sometimes a wonder is diminished by a miracle.

And this I shall do by showing you two equal surfaces, together with two equal solids located upon these came surfaces as bases, all four of which diminish continuously and uniformly in such a way that their remainders always preserve equality among themselves, and finally both the surfaces and the solids terminate their previous constant equality by degenerating, the one solid and the one surface into a very long line, the other solid and the other surface into a single point; that is, the latter to one point, the former to an infinite number of points.

SAGREDO. This proposition appears to me wonderful, indeed; but let us hear the explanation and demonstration.

SALVIATI, Since the proof is purely geometrical we shall need a figure [Fig. 2]. Let AFB be a semicircle with center at C; about it describe the rectangle ADEB

Fig. 2

and from the center draw the straight lines CD and CE to the points D and E. Imagine the radius CF to be drawn perpendicular to either of the lines AB or DE, and the entire figure to rotate about this radius as an axis. It is clear that the rectangle ADEB will thus describe a cylinder, the semicircle AFB a hemisphere, and the triangle CDE a cone. Next let us remove the hemisphere but leave the cone and the rest of the cylinder, which, on account of its shape, we will call a "bowl." First we shall prove that the bowl and the cone are equal; then we shall show that a plane drawn parallel to the circle which forms the base of the bowl and which has the fine DE for diameter and F for a center—a plane whose trace is GN —cuts the bowl in the points G, I, O, N, and the cone in the points H, L, so that the part of the cone indicated by CHL is always equal to the part of the bowl whose profile is represented by the triangles GAI and BON. Besides this we shall prove that the base of the cone, i.e., the circle whose diameter is HL, is equal to the circular surface which forms the base of this portion of the bowl, or, as one might say, equal to a ribbon whose width is GI. (Note by the way the nature of mathematical definitions which consist merely in the imposition of names, or, if you prefer, abbreviations of speech established and introduced in order to avoid the tedious drudgery which you and I now experience simply because we have not agreed to call this surface a "circular band" and that sharp solid portion of the bowl a "round razor.") Now call them by what name you please, it suffices to understand that the plane, drawn at any height whatever, so long as it is parallel to the base, i.e., to the circle whose diameter is DE, always cuts the two solids so that the portion CHL of the cone is equal to the upper portion of the bowl; likewise the two areas which are the bases of these solids, namely, the band and the circle HL, are also equl. Here we have the miracle mentioned above; as the cutting plane approaches the line AB the portions of the solids cut off are always equal, so also the areas of their bases.

And as the cutting plane comes near the top, the two solids (always equal) as well as their bases (areas which are also equal) finally vanish, one pair of them degenerating into the circumference of a circle, the other into a single point, namely, the upper edge of the bowl and the apex of the cone. Now, since as these solids diminish equality is maintained between them up to the very last, we are justified in saying that, at the extreme and final end of this diminution, they are still equal and that one is not infinitely greater than the other. It appears, therefore, that we may equate the circumference of a large circle to a single point. And this which is true of the solids is true also of the surfaces which form their bases; for these also preserve equality between themselves throughout their diminution and in the end vanish, the one into the circumference of a circle, the other into a single point. Shall we not then call them equal, seeing that they are the last traces and remnants of equal magnitudes? Note also that, even if these vessels were large enough to contain immense celestial hemispheres, both their upper edges and the apexes of the cones therein contained would always remain equal and would vanish, the former into circles having the dimensions of the largest celestial orbits, the latter into single points. Hence in conformity with the preceding we may say that all circumferences of circles, however different, are equal to each other, and are each equal to a single point.

SAGREDO. This presentation strikes me as so clever and novel that, even if I were able, I would not be willing to oppose it; for to deface so beautiful a structure by a blunt pedantic attack would be nothing short of sinful. But for our complete satisfaction pray give us this geometrical proof that there is always equality between these solids and between their bases; for it cannot, I think, fail to be very ingenious, seeing how subtle is the philosophical argument based upon this result.

SALVIATI. The demonstration is both short and easy. Referring to the preceding figure, since IPC is a right angle the square of the radius IC is equal to the sum of the squares on the two sides IP, PC; but the radius IC is equal to AC and also to GP, while CP is equal to PH. Hence the square of the line GP is equal to the sum of the squares of IP and PH, or multiplying through by 4, we have the square of the diameter GN equal to the sum of the squares on IO and HL. And, since the areas of circles are to each other as the squares of their diameters, it follows that the area of the circle whose diameter is GN is equal to the sum of the areas of circles having diameters IO and HL, so that if we remove the common area of the circle having IO for diameter the remaining area of the circle GN will be equal to the area of the circle whose diameter is HL. So much for the first part. As for the other part, we leave its demonstration for the present, partly because those who wish to follow it will find it in the twelfth proposition of the second book of De centro gravitatis solidorum by the Archimedes of our age, Luca Valerio,5 who made use of it for a different object, and partly because, for our purpose, it suffices to have seen that the above-mentioned surfaces are always equal and that, as they keep on diminishing uniformly, they degenerate, the one into a single point, the other into the circumference of a circle larger than any assignable; in this fact lies our miracle.

SAGREDO. The demonstration is ingenious and the inferences drawn from it are remarkable.

One of the main objections urged against this building up of continuous quantities out of indivisible quantities [continuo d’indivisibili ] is that the addition of one indivisible to another cannot produce a divisible, for if this were so it would render the indivisible divisible. Thus if two indivisibles, say two points, can be united to form a quantity, say a divisible line, then an even more divisible line might be formed by the union of three, five, seven, or any other odd number cf points. Since, however, these lines can be cut into two equal parts, it becomes possible to cut the indivisible which lies exactly in the middle of the line. In answer to this and other objections of the same type we reply that a divisible magnitude cannot be constructed out of two or ten or a hundred or a thousand indivisibles, but requires an infinite number of them.

SIMPLICIO. Here a difficulty presents itself which appears to me insoluble. Since it is clear that we may have one line greater than another, each containing an infinite number of points, we are forced to admit that, within one and the same class, we may have something greater than infinity, because the infinity of points in the long line is greater than the infinity of points in the short line. This assigning to an infinite quantity a value greater than infinity is quite beyond my comprehension.

SALVIATI. This is one of the difficulties which arise when we attempt, with our finite minds, to discuss the infinite, assigning to it those properties which we give to the finite and limited; but this I think is wrong, for we cannot speak of infinite quantities as being the one greater or less than or equal to another. To prove this I have in mind an argument which, for the sake of clearness, I shall put in the form of questions to Simplicio, who raised this difficulty.

SIMPLICIO. Leaving this to one side for the moment, I should like to hear how the introduction of these indivisible quantities helps us to understand contraction and expansion, avoiding at the same time the vacuum and the penetrability of bodies.

SAGREDO. I also shall listen with keen interest to this same matter, which is far from clear in my mind; provided I am allowed to hear what, a moment ago, Simplicio suggested we omit, namely, the reasons which Aristotle offers against the existence of the vacuum and the arguments which you must advance in rebuttal.

SALVIATI. I will do both. And first, just as, for the production of expansion, we employ the line described by the smal1 circle during one rotation of the large one—a line greater than the circumference of the small circle—so, in order to explain contraction, we point out that, during each rotation of the smaller circle, the larger one describes a straight line which is shorter than its circumference.

For the better understanding of this we proceed to the consideration of what happens in the case of polygons. Employing a figure similar to the earlier one [Fig. 3], construct the two hexagons, ABC and HIK, about the common center

Fig. 3

L, and let them roll along the parallel lines HOM and ABc. Now holding the vertex I fixed, allow the smaller polygon to rotate until the side IK lies upon the parallel, during which motion the point K will describe the arc KM, and the side KI will coincide with IM. Let us see what, in the meantime, the side CB of the larger polygon has been doing. Since the rotation is about the point I, the terminal point B of the line IB. moving backward, will describe the arc Bb underneath the parallel cA so that, when the side KI coincides with the line MI, the side BC will coincide with bc, having advanced only through the distance Bc, but having retreated through a portion of the line BA which subtends the arc Bb. If we allow the rotation of the smaller polygon to go on it will traverse and describe along its parallel a line equal to its perimeter; while the larger one will traverse and describe a line less than its perimeter by as many times the length bB as there are sides less one; this line is approximately equal to that described by the smaller polygon, exceeding it, only by the distance bB. Here now we see, without any difficulty, why the larger polygon, when carried by the smaller, does not measure off with its sides a line longer than that traversed by the smaller one; this is because a portion of each side is superposed upon its immediately preceding neighbor.

Let us next consider two circles, having a common center at A, and lying upon their respective parallels, the smaller being tangent to its parallel at the point B; the larger, at the point C. Here when the small circle commences to roll the point B does not remain at rest for a while so as to allow BC to move backward and carry with it the point C, as happened in the case of the polygons, where the point I remained fixed until the side KI coincided with MI and the line IB carried the terminal point B backward as far as b, so that the side BC fell upon bc, thus superposing upon the line BA the portion Bb, and advancing by an amount Bc, equal to MI, that is, to one side of the smaller polygon. On account of these superpositions, which are the excesses of the sides of the larger over the smaller polygon, each net advance is equal to one side of the smaller polygon and, during one complete rotation, these amount to a straight line equal in length to the perimeter of the smaller polygon.

But now reasoning in the same way concerning the circles, we must observe that, whereas the number of sides in any polygon is comprised within a certain limit, the number of sides in a circle is infinite; the former are finite and divisible; the latter infinite and indivisible. In the case of the polygon, the vertices remain at rest during an interval of time which bears to the period of one complete rotation the same ratio which one side bears to the perimeter; likewise, in the case of the circles, the delay of each of the infinite number of vertices is merely instantaneous, because an instant is such a fraction of a finite interval as a point is of a line which contains an infinite number of points. The retrogression of the sides of the larger polygon is not equal to the length of one of its sides but merely to the excess of such a side over one side of the smaller polygon, the net advance being equal to this smaller side; but in the circle the point or side C, during the instantaneous rest of B, recedes by an amount equal to its excess over the side B, making a net progress equal to B itself. In short, the infinite number of indivisible sides of the greater circle with their infinite number of indivisible retrogressions, made during the infinite number of instantaneous delays of the infinite number of vertices of the smaller circle, together with the infinite number of progressions, equal to the infinite number of sides in the smaller circle—all these, I say, add up to a line equal to that described by the smaller circle, a line which contains an infinite number of infinitely small superpositions, this bringing about a thickening or contraction without any overlapping or interpenetration of finite parts. This result could not be obtained in the ease of a line divided into finite parts such as is the p erimeter of any polygon, which when laid out in a straight line cannot be shorte ned except by the overlapping and interpenetration of its sides. This contraction of an infinite number of infinitely small parts without the interpenetration or overlapping of finite parts and the previously mentioned expansion of an infinite number of indivisible parts by the interposition of indivisible vacua is, in my opinion, the most that can be said concerning the contraction and rarefaction of bodies, unless we give up the impenetrability of matter and introduce empty spaces of finite size. If you find anything here that you consider worth while, pray use it; if not, regard it, together with my remarks, as idle talk; but this remember, we are dealing with the infinite and the indivisible.

1 The Questions in mechanics (also translated as Mechanical problems ) is a collection of mechanical problems and their solutions; it is not a work of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) but probably originated in his school, perhaps composed in the time of his successors, Theophrastus or Strato (322–269 B.C.). The book contains the parallelogram of velocities, and also the problem called that of the rota Aristotelis, the wheel that Galilei discusses in connection with Fig. 1. See Aristotle, minor works, with an English translation by W. S. Hett (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1936), 330–441. The rota Aristotelis is the subject of Problem 24, which begins as follows: "A difficulty arises as to how it is that the grater circle when it revolves traces out a path of the same length as a smaller circle, if the two are concentric. When they am revolved separately, then the paths along which they travel are in the same ratio as their respective sizes." We now say that when the larger circle AB (Fig. 1) rolls on BF, then the same smaller circle AC, fixed to circle AB, rolls and slides along CE. See further G. S. Klügel, Mathematisches Wörterbuch (Schwickert, Leipzig, 1823), IV, under "Rad, Aristotelisches." We meet the rota Aristotelis again when the cycloid is investigated; see Selection IV.10.

2 Giovanni di Guevara (1561–1651), in later lifo bishop of Teano, was a correspondent of Galilei’s. One of their points of discussion was Aristotle’s Questions in mechanics.

3 Galilei uses words: cento mila lati.

4 Italian: stavano continuate.

5 See Selection IV.1.


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Chicago: Galileo Galilei, "On Infinites and Infinitesimals," A Source Book in Mathematics, 1200-1800, ed. A. Favaro and trans. A. De Salvio in A Source Book in Mathematics, 1200-1800, ed. D. J. Struik (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, 1986), 198–207. Original Sources, accessed July 2, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XE9PGW5RNK6YCZI.

MLA: Galilei, Galileo. "On Infinites and Infinitesimals." A Source Book in Mathematics, 1200-1800, edited by A. Favaro, and translated by A. De Salvio, Vol. VIII, in A Source Book in Mathematics, 1200-1800, edited by D. J. Struik, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1969, 1986, pp. 198–207. Original Sources. 2 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XE9PGW5RNK6YCZI.

Harvard: Galilei, G, 'On Infinites and Infinitesimals' in A Source Book in Mathematics, 1200-1800, ed. and trans. . cited in 1969, 1986, A Source Book in Mathematics, 1200-1800, ed. , Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp.198–207. Original Sources, retrieved 2 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XE9PGW5RNK6YCZI.