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written by Michael Clough, Craig Ogilvie, and Michael Matthews
supported by the National Science Foundation
This web page presents the story of the humble pendulum and its significant role in the development of modern science. Inspired by Galileo's classic experimentation, the pendulum provided the Western world's first accurate means of time-keeping. But perhaps more importantly, the story of the pendulum brings to light the shift to using mathematics to understand the natural world -- the methodological core of the Scientific Revolution. This resource examines how Galileo's studies of pendulum motion triggered a revolutionary new way of thinking about physics and about the value of idealization in science.

This item is part of a larger collection of stories spanning five disciplines, all designed to spark student interest by introducing them to the human involvement in important scientific endeavors and discoveries. See Related Materials for a link to the full collection.
Editor's Note: This story is recommended as part of an introductory classical mechanics curriculum.  It is eloquently written, but teachers may wish to note that the Flesch-Kincaid Readability score is 13.85, which correlates to college sophomore level.
Subjects Levels Resource Types
Classical Mechanics
- General
General Physics
- History
- Philosophy
- Scientific Reasoning
- High School
- Lower Undergraduate
- Informal Education
- Instructional Material
= Curriculum support
= Tutorial
Appropriate Courses Categories Ratings
- Conceptual Physics
- Algebra-based Physics
- AP Physics
- Activity
- New teachers
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General Public
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© 2010 Iowa State University
Aristotelian theory, Galileo, Scientific Revolution, clocks, historic experiments, history of science, idealization, navigation, pendulum experiments, pendulum experiments, timekeeping
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created June 12, 2012 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
August 23, 2016 by Lyle Barbato

AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

1. The Nature of Science

1A. The Scientific Worldview
  • 9-12: 1A/H2. From time to time, major shifts occur in the scientific view of how things work. More often, however, the changes that take place in the body of scientific knowledge are small modifications of prior knowledge. Continuity and change are persistent features of science.
1B. Scientific Inquiry
  • 6-8: 1B/M1b. Scientific investigations usually involve the collection of relevant data, the use of logical reasoning, and the application of imagination in devising hypotheses and explanations to make sense of the collected data.
  • 9-12: 1B/H6a. In the short run, new ideas that do not mesh well with mainstream ideas in science often encounter vigorous criticism.
  • 9-12: 1B/H6b. In the long run, theories are judged by the range of observations they explain, how well they explain observations, and how useful they are in making accurate predictions.
  • 9-12: 1B/H7. New ideas in science are limited by the context in which they are conceived; are often rejected by the scientific establishment; sometimes spring from unexpected findings; and usually grow slowly, through contributions from many investigators.
1C. The Scientific Enterprise
  • 9-12: 1C/H3a. Progress in science and invention depends heavily on what else is happening in society.

2. The Nature of Mathematics

2B. Mathematics, Science, and Technology
  • 9-12: 2B/H3. Mathematics provides a precise language to describe objects and events and the relationships among them. In addition, mathematics provides tools for solving problems, analyzing data, and making logical arguments.

11. Common Themes

11B. Models
  • 9-12: 11B/H1a. A mathematical model uses rules and relationships to describe and predict objects and events in the real world.

12. Habits of Mind

12A. Values and Attitudes
  • 9-12: 12A/H3. In science, a new theory rarely gains widespread acceptance until its advocates can show that it is borne out by the evidence, is logically consistent with other principles that are not in question, explains more than its rival theories, and has the potential to lead to new knowledge.

Common Core State Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6—12

Craft and Structure (6-12)
  • RST.11-12.6 Analyze the author's purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, identifying important issues that remain unresolved.
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity (6-12)
  • RST.11-12.10 By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend science/technical texts in the grades 11—CCR text complexity band independently and proficiently.
ComPADRE is beta testing Citation Styles!

Record Link
AIP Format
M. Clough, C. Ogilvie, and M. Matthews, (2010), WWW Document, (https://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/pendulum.pdf).
M. Clough, C. Ogilvie, and M. Matthews, The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion, (2010), <https://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/pendulum.pdf>.
APA Format
Clough, M., Ogilvie, C., & Matthews, M. (2010). The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion. Retrieved January 23, 2022, from https://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/pendulum.pdf
Chicago Format
Clough, M, C. Ogilvie, and M. Matthews. The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion. 2010. https://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/pendulum.pdf (accessed 23 January 2022).
MLA Format
Clough, Michael, Craig Ogilvie, and Michael Matthews. The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion. 2010. National Science Foundation. 23 Jan. 2022 <https://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/pendulum.pdf>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Author = "Michael Clough and Craig Ogilvie and Michael Matthews", Title = {The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion}, Volume = {2022}, Number = {23 January 2022}, Year = {2010} }
Refer Export Format

%A Michael Clough %A Craig Ogilvie %A Michael Matthews %T The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion %D 2010 %U https://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/pendulum.pdf %O application/pdf

EndNote Export Format

%0 Electronic Source %A Clough, Michael %A Ogilvie, Craig %A Matthews, Michael %D 2010 %T The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion %V 2022 %N 23 January 2022 %9 application/pdf %U https://www.storybehindthescience.org/pdf/pendulum.pdf

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The AIP Style presented is based on information from the AIP Style Manual.

The APA Style presented is based on information from APA Style.org: Electronic References.

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The Story Behind the Science: Pendulum Motion:

Is Part Of The Story Behind The Science

A link to the full collection: The Story Behind the Science

relation by Caroline Hall
Is By The Same Author and Covers a Similar Topic As The Story Behind the Science: The Role of Theory - Pendulum Motion and Shape of the Earth

A story that examines 17th-century pendulum experimentation and how differing scientific views led to the challenge of the "Spherical Earth Theory", leading to its ultimate rejection.

relation by Caroline Hall

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