, Volume 180, Issue 3, pp 337–356

How Galileo dropped the ball and Fermat picked it up


DOI: 10.1007/s11229-009-9705-7

Cite this article as:
Roberts, B.W. Synthese (2011) 180: 337. doi:10.1007/s11229-009-9705-7


This paper introduces a little-known episode in the history of physics, in which a mathematical proof by Pierre Fermat vindicated Galileo’s characterization of freefall. The first part of the paper reviews the historical context leading up to Fermat’s proof. The second part illustrates how a physical and a mathematical insight enabled Fermat’s result, and that a simple modification would satisfy any of Fermat’s critics. The result is an illustration of how a purely theoretical argument can settle an apparently empirical debate.


Foundations of physicsHistory of mathematicsFreefallAccelerationGalileoFermat

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA