Scott Smith's Reviews > The Cambridge Companion to Galileo

The Cambridge Companion to Galileo by Peter K. Machamer
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's review
Apr 07, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: for-story-the-bellows, for-story-thirsty, for-story-black-diamond, quo-vadis
Read from April 07, 2012 to March 13, 2013

Is physics theory a reflection of the social construct of the time period it's being proposed in?

If a particle physicist seeks the use of an accelerator with the beliefs and stroboscopic consciousness reference of a 17th century theoretical-democratist, having first discovered the relationship of empiricism-to-source as reader-to-book, will he still know how to find a quark, or will he, with some other approach in an ALTERNATE conscious-universe, find something else?

This book is so far a great source for raising questions like these, as it places Galileo in his scientific and social context.

By the way, I've made a point of NOT studying physics, so, as far as I know, a quark may be precisely the metaphor that the physicist DOES find in the instance mentioned.


I've just started the book, but what interests me most so far is this section of the introduction which seems to be a meta-narration of scientific discovery through Galileo's time in striking terms. Not only does the author reduce all of science to the matter of balance, but also seems to speak of social stability as a function of social contract of individual bodies in some kind of true democratic system, whatever this entails (hopefully further research will merit), and, it seems to me, nominally renouncing the occult rite of 'the killing of the king' which is both a rite in Masonic teaching and found to exist throughout history in 'The Golden Bough' by Sir James George Frazer Which is interesting, considering we are speaking of Galileo, and in broad terms, the Copernican Revolution.


For human beings, the internal world was the realm of ideas - sensible images of bodies, connections among these images, and abstractions from both. This was the realm of understanding. In addition an intensity dimension was needed and was conceived of as power, or, sometimes, desire. This was the new mode of conception of the will. The practices associated with all these ideas and intensities were described in terms of control that led both to understanding (comprehension) and utility. To know is to be able to control things in accord with plans and desires. Emphasis on this dimension can be seen in the new wave of voluntaristic theology that became prevalent throughout the low countries, France, and England. One problem that would persist throughout subsequent ages was how to comprehend the nature of the human being and how to bring humans under control (for purposes of health or betterment of life) by utilizing models and devices taken from the nonhuman, mechanical realm.
The systematization of the material world, natural philosophy, was seen as a mechanical model. This provided a concrete, constructible representation as the basis for knowledge in this new world view. Thus, knowledge of any thing could be modeled by real machines or real bodies, for the world was constructed as a machine was. The world was merely a set of Archimedian simple machines hooked together or a set of colliding corpuscles that obeyed the laws of mechanical collision (i.e., laws of the balance).
What did it take to understand a machine? There were two paradigmatic mechanical devices at the start: The balance or the pendulum and the mechanical clock. The clock had more power as an image because it had visibly regular motions and was as trustworthy as it was well made. But it did not take long for those building the new system to show that a mechanical clock was just a form of pendulum, and the pendulum was just a bent and hinged balance, and that all the other simple machines could be treated as if they were balances. This was Galileo's vision, and from him it swept around Europe and even across the seas into China.
It was a short but interestingly different move from Galileo's representations of two forces seeking equilibrium along a balance beam into Descartes' separation of the forces, thus turning a balance problem into an equilibrium collision* problem. This collision form is the geometrical model of the mechanical universe that persisted until algebra brought new, nongeometrical representations and new ways of thinking - a new model of intelligibility for the universe (which started about the time of Euler but came to full fruition only in the nineteenth century).
This mechanical model of thought also pushed its way into the political realm, in the form of contract theory. Institutions were now to be legitimized by establishing equilibria among individual human bodies, as they all, singly and equally, entered into contracts - one with each other. Contracts were designed, in Hobbes' or Locke's system, to ensure the solidity of the nation, the peace of the world, and the political stability of a government that could not be undermined by the assassination or decapitation of a king.
The world was indeed a new place. Such individualism in science and philosophy, as it was found now in England, Holland, France, and northern Germany, was not the only possible reaction to these social and cultural conditions. As always, people did not have to move along with the new forces shaping the world; it was possible to react and regress. Rather than change to the new ways, they could try to reinvent and reestablish an older form of life. This is what happened in southern Germany, Austria, and throughout the Hapsburg empire. This reactionary move also accounts for the increasing marginalization of Spain and Portugal.
I try, in my essay in this volume, to show how it was that Galileo fit into this new world picture or, better, how he helped to create it. I demonstrate there that Galileo forged a new model of intelligibility for human understanding. He established new criteria for coherent explanations of natural phenomena. But these criteria - that is, the form of adequate explanations or demonstrations - were those that came fit with the mechanical philosophy or the mechanical world picture.**

* my note - I assume this also means the mind-body 'problem' which was Descartes' legacy.
** And as for the closing sentences of this paragraph. I noticed a book in the library the other day called Galileo's Mistake, which could be about the limitations-as-debilitations described here.


4/11/2012 - UPDATE 2 - CHAPTER 2 - Galileo’s Machines, His Mathematics, and His Experiments, by Peter Machamer

Galileo is not just known for his advancement of the Copernican theory of Heliocentrism, but also for a mechanistic method and view of science.

He reduced the problem of motion and mechanics, and all simple machines to the balance. So, as I understand it, before Newton came along and invented gravity and the laws of motion, Galileo previously explained everything in terms of balance, which is explained through geometry by bisecting a line and having a ‘weight’ on either end extended below the end-points, where one is either heavier or lighter than the one hanging from the opposite end, resulting in motion up or down, or, the two weights are equal and thus they both remain still.

Because this notion came to be accepted as a way of finding the truth, and I guess to mean much more than just a measure of physical balance but also to do with, with the several various meanings of sense in which Galileo uses the word in the Dialogue, including ‘ratio’ - reason, proper proportonality, justice herself (Libra), it seems to have become a crux of language and ‘trade’ if you will. Called into use for ‘balanced finances’, balance of payment, balance of trade.

Especially since, as far as the method of Galileo, he believed the way to create a proof (la prova), or ‘test’, was to create a working design of the problem with a geometrical construct. And this is the mathematics he stuck to, geometry. It wasn’t until Newton that algebra ‘entered the equation’, and in fact, “Never is it acceptable to put Galileo’s proofs and theorems into algebraic form. To do so destroys the mind set, the schema, the very model of intelligibility with which they were working.” I grasped this very well when reading through these pages, 53-74, but now pressed to explain it I would say it has to do with relativity... somehow innate in geometry? Something gleaned from the text but not stated.

I suppose I would have to reread this chapter to get it.

“These devices or analogic phenomena literally demostrate how the phenomena occurs. One sees the machine or phenomenon as an instance of mathematics in the world. In this way one can know that they are real and not imaginary.
This idea of mechanical models or real or constructed experiences being needed for demonstration fits well with the constructive geometrical tradition. To have a demonstration in geometry one must construct a proof, actually draw the diagram. This idea of active construction is also the force behind the persuasiveness of the passage in ‘Dialogo’ where Salviati has Simplicio construct the diagram, using agreed upon experiences as constraints, that shows the relations among the planets. In this way, Salviati says he will come to understand even though he does not believe.”

Or, perhaps, put another way, “I believe because it is absurd.”
The rest of the chapter discusses Galileo’s conception and belief in the balance as not just of practical application, but an application in practice. As it is not just something he came up with to explain motion in physics, but also, the method he seems to employ as a scientist, that is, his modus operandei. Machamer, the author, goes on to discuss another author I happen to be reading at the moment, Thomas Kuhn, author of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ which is about how science does science. I purposefully decided to focus my reading on this book, The Scientific Revolutions book, and ‘Galileo at Work’ by Stillman Drake

“Of course, Simplico ends up with a Copernican diagram. To have a demonstration in mechanics one must construct a geometrical proof and coordinate it with experiences.”

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