Expansion of Theoretical Mechanics in the Early Modern Period

Expansion of Theoretical Mechanics in the Early Modern Period

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Origins of ballistic theory: Attempt to adapt the construction of
projectile trajectories to the knowledge of the artillerists. Taken
from a book on artillery by Diego Ufano (1628).

The rapid advancement of mechanical knowledge in the early modern period is reflected in an impressive expansion of the literary production, including the emergence of new text genres. A major aim of the activity is to reconstruct the shared knowledge reflected in these texts. The notion of shared knowledge provides the background for the analysis of the branching of theoretical alternatives made possible by the enrichment of theoretical mechanics in the early modern period. This potential becomes visible, in particular, in sources which did not enter the heroic narratives of the birth of classical mechanics. Among these are unpublished materials (research notebooks, correspondence, unpublished manuscripts) and the works of scientists who are less well known because they did not, from the anachronistic perspective of classical physics, contribute to its emergence. In sequel to the extensive work invested into making Galileo's manuscripts accessible on the Internet, his notes on mechanics are systematically analyzed. The detailed analysis of this vast collection of research notes reveals, contrary to the published Discorsi, the challenging problems that motivated and shaped Galileo's thinking and shows how many attempts to solve these problems failed. Another activity is dedicated to similar research notes by Thomas Harriot, one of Galileo's most important contemporaries, who exploited the same shared knowledge resources in order to approach the same challenging subjects. While the paths Harriot traces through this knowledge are different from Galileo's, thus furthering our understanding of its structure, the work of the two scientists displays striking similarities as regards their achievements as well as the problems they were unable to solve.

  • Damerow, Peter, Gideon Freudenthal, Peter McLaughlin, and Jürgen Renn. Exploring the Limits of Preclassical Mechanics, Second Edition. 2nd ed. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2004.
  • Renn, Jürgen, ed. Galileo in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Schemmel, Matthias: Thomas Harriot as an English Galileo: the force of shared knowledge in early modern mechanics. In: Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies, 21 (2003) 1, p. 1-10
  • Schüller, Volkmar [ed.]: Newton, Isaac: Die mathematischen Prinzipien der Physik. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1999