Sunday, February 06, 2011

John Heilbron on Galileo as Experimentalist

"Lamp of Galileo"
Dome of the Cathedral of Pisa
Perhaps not one of Galileo's empirical observations . . .
(Image from Wikipedia)

We've just returned from Busan to Seoul on the express train, which gave me just two and a half hours to read, but I got through more of John Heilbron's biography of Galileo and found some remarks on experimental method interesting:
What has been gained [from various modern analyses of Galileo's manuscripts] is an appreciation of Galileo's skill as an experimenter. The manuscripts contain many numbers and some diagrams that suggest the experimental arrangements that produced them: pendulums, inclined planes, water clocks, free drops. Several modern Galileians have repeated these experiments and, after much cut and try, have reproduced the numbers. Their success has only enlarged the domain of mystery.

Did experiment drive theory or theory experiment? Sometimes the one and sometimes the other, but also, and not rarely, neither. Galileo could stick to an attractive theory in the face of overwhelming experimental refutation. During his period of greatest creativity in the science of motion, from 1602 to 1609, he probably jumped from theory to experiment and from one idea to another, circled back and forth, inventing the form of descriptive mathematical physics, guided by little more than his buon gusto. The principal outcome was a somber, limited, exact science, and a few striking results, advertised as more exact than they were, to serve as a replacement for one chapter of the vast, colorful, diffuse library of Aristotelian philosophy. (Heilbron, Galileo, pages 126-127)
I don't quite know what to make of this, but I find interesting that Galileo might have been guided not so much by theory or experiment as by taste. But how might taste guide the scientist toward the truth? I don't know.

But maybe Heilbron does. He has some things to say about good taste in a reference to Ludovico Antonio Muratori, a scholar of good taste, in a lecture on "Physics and History: Forged in the Baroque," starting about 48 minutes and 30 seconds into the lecture and lasting about one minute.

Ever the good pedagogue, Heilbron reduces Muratori's instructions on buon gusto to three principles for ease of remembering them, but you can go to the lecture to find out what they are, for Heilbron relates them far better than I could on this blog . . .

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At 4:11 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Welcome back, not-lone ranger.

I think that Heilbron's remarks are absolutely enlightening, not only as far as Galileo is concerned, but Science in general.

But how might taste guide the scientist toward the truth?

The question assumes that an "object" called truth is already there, just to be discovered by digging...
But, even in John 1.18 the Son is not said to "discover, reveal" the Father: He rather "interprets" (ekeinos exegesato).

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Heilbron employs the term "truth," but from discussions that I had with him back in the 1980s, he pretty clearly held to an instrumentalist 'interpretation' of truth.

Thanks for the remark on John 1:18. I hadn't noted that well enough before.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:51 AM, Anonymous Lichanos said...


Heilbron's comments on scientific method were interesting indeed. Too often, we forget that science is a human endeavor, not something done by a machine. Paul Feyeraband liked to make that point (see Against Method) though I think he overreached.

You might find this post of interest - some of these issues are dealt with there and in the comments:
On Number and Nature

At 7:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the link to your interesting post.

As for Feyerabend, I also think that he overreached. But I would agree that method isn't enough. One also needs to have ideas. I wonder where those come from?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:20 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

I wonder where those come from?

That's the ultimate mystery and beauty of life.

At 3:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

So, that's where they come from!

Jeffery Hodges

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