Galileo's Notes on Motion
This presentation of the Codex 72 of the Galilean Collection, focusing on Galileo’s own notes on motion, is a gem. The manuscript offers drafts of theorems on motion, proofs, and three letters written to Galileo. It is not designed for use in a high school classroom, but please don’t let that dissuade you from using it!
Several years ago, when researchers began to realize the vast potential of the Internet, there was considerable speculation about the possibility of digitizing archives. One of the arguments against this—that access would not be limited, and thus important material would be placed in the hands of the insufficiently educated—echoed the European reaction to the introduction of the printing press 500 or so years ago. Irony aside, it’s clear that most scholarly material, Galileo’s notes on motion included, has a way of limiting its audiences without any assistance from archivists.
This archive can help break down the limitations. First, the document image, in color, is actually readable, and the site provides three levels of focus or magnification for each folio. Moreover, a complete cataloging, including a description of watermarks and a list of scholarly references, is available. Finally, the transliteration—and, in the case of the propositions list, a side-by-side translation—make the document accessible to the “unlettered”—if being lettered includes not only a solid knowledge of Latin but also skill in paleography!
Now, why should a younger student be exposed to this site? For the same reasons that we encourage our students to examine any primary material, and, in this case, for an additional reason. This site is an exemplar of beautiful web design and of the best use of the technology. It offers real possibilities in terms of digitized archives.
The question, of course, is how, exactly, will you introduce your students to the site? I admit that, were you considering Galileo’s work in a survey of European history, a much more accessible document might be his “Starry Messenger,” with the original drawings. So I propose a collaboration, a sort of cross-disciplinary approach to Galileo, which requires the assistance of a math teacher.
Time and distance problems are puzzling to almost everyone in our culture. Add the concept of acceleration to the mix, and many students will throw up their hands in despair. Your colleague (co-conspirator?) in the math department must listen for the inevitable “I don’t understand these problems!” Then, resisting the urge to explain, he or she must smile slyly and say, “Oh, I think you may be doing something like this in social studies.”
Now is the time to show your students this site, and to direct them to the propositions. Their assignment is quite simple: they must take a theorem and “translate” it into everyday English [2/01-th-01 is a good choice].
To “translate,” students must read word-by-word. The beauty of Galileo’s work—in fact, the beauty of all great scientific work—is that, read carefully, it is quite clear. In Galileo’s case, his diagrams add another degree of clarity for the student. Of course, this assignment would not work without the thoughtful construction of a site that provides an English translation as well as the diagram. But for some students, it should be an eye opener in more ways than one. How often do you get a chance to introduce students to a primary document, clarify a mathematics concept, and allow them to appreciate the possibilities of a new technology, in one lesson?