Galileo Galilei’s attempt to measure the dimensions of hell

he Early Renaissance period brought an interesting time when science and religion would come together again, despite the strong beliefs of Catholics and their denial of science. Contemporary historians regard Dante’s Divine Comedy as the most famous work of art that attempts to truly define hell based on Christian beliefs and ancient writings.

The works of art, including the short novels and poems by Dante Alighieri, were created between 1307 and 1320. In these, the artist depicts hell with explicit complexity, as if he himself had gone to visit hell. Since 1320, when his work was completed, different scholars have worked hard to map the physical features of hell.

Despite the complex geometric theories present at the time, it was not enough to understand what some scholars described as a “fantasy world” created by Dante. The Renaissance period encouraged scholars to take a more philosophical approach to the world of science and analyzes of religious literature as well as art featuring biblical events.

Galileo Galilei (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For this reason, in 1588 the Catholic Church asked Galileo Galilei to use his mathematical knowledge to measure the dimensions of hell from Dante’s paintings. At the time Galileo was only 24 years old, but a prodigy in the field of physics, even considered by some historians to be the most intelligent person of the XVI century.

Dante’s description of hell explained that hell was made up of 9 circles, with each circle getting smaller as it got closer to the Earth’s core. The deeper the circle, the more vicious hell became. The last circle was for the most despicable human beings on earth, like the Roman soldier who killed Jesus (John 19:34).

Sandro Botticelli, HellCanto XVIII, 1480s, color drawing on parchment (Source: Staatliche Museen)

The shape of hell is described by Christian literature as being in the shape of a cone that had been formed from a battle between God and Lucifer. When God struck Lucifer, he fell near the city of Cuma in Italy, forming the entrance to hell, and the impact created the conical shape shown in Dante’s painting.

Galileo studied Dante’s art in depth and began to discuss the poet’s fantasy world with the use of science. Galileo was not the first scholar to attempt to measure the dimensions of hell, but he was the first to realize that the hell dimension has its own set of physics. Dante describes hell as a cone that extends from the inner core of the Earth outward.

For this measurement, Galileo used Jerusalem as the center of the Earth and calculated the distance between Cuma (Italy) to be 2,700 km (1,677 miles). Based on this, Galileo concluded that the cone of hell would have a diameter of 5,550 km (3,417 miles). Soon after, Galileo realized there was a big mistake in his calculations. According to the laws of physics, the massive cylinders descending to the center of the Earth — would, in real life, collapse under their own weight.

Galileo even considered other calculations and attempts to measure the diameter of Hell, but found that they all made the same mistake. He mentioned that the greatest scholars of the time, including himself, did not understand how real-world structures worked.

This mistake is what led Galileo to make amazing breakthroughs in the world of physics, even creating some of the laws of physics that still apply to this day. Several years later, Galileo published a book in 1638 titled “Two New Sciences” in which he laid the foundations of mechanics within science using such errors as examples. Thus, the era of Aristotle’s physics came to an end and gave birth to modern science.

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