Today I went back to the basics with a visit to the Museo Galileo taking me on a journey back in time through the history of science beginning in the 15th century. There were cases full of different kinds of unique and ornate sundials, and beautifully detailed and shiny mathematical toolsets from the 16th century. We were reminded by the museum’s writing that: “Since antiquity, mankind has been fascinated by time, viewed as an enigma on both the philosophical and the physical level.”
We crossed through rooms dedicated to the display of both terrestrial and celestial globes. Imagine having a globe – a spherical representation of the earth – at your fingertips after centuries of believing the earth to be flat. The other incredible idea about these globes was the concept of mapping the skies and the earth. Like the Sistine Chapel, there was so much detail involved in a map, the task must have seemed daunting and exhilarating.
From the museum’s writing on the wall on Galileo’s “New World”: “The summer of 1609 marks the beginning of the revolutionary telescopic exploration of the skies that led to sensational discoveries of Galileo Galilei: the surface of the Moon appeared grooved by mountains and valleys like those of the Earth; the constellations displayed a multitude of stars invisible to the naked eye; Jupiter was surrounded by satellites; Venus showed cyclic phases like those of the Moon; the Sun’s surface was marred by dark spots; Saturn bulged strangely at the sides. These astronomical discoveries heralded a revolution destined to demolish an image of the universe that had lasted for two thousand years. The profound shock of that revolution, undermining faith in man’s privileged position in the universe, aroused violent antagonism...”
Throughout the museum there were also books with impeccably detailed sketches; an art critical to the world of design. Their shining gold compasses provided a sense of majesty to the instruments, lost from our typical plastic tools.
My two favorite rooms in the museum were the ones filled with experimental setups. To set the tone in the first room, there was a quote on the wall from Galileo in 1623:
"Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.”
I sat on one of the museum benches in the center of the room reflecting on the meaning. Around the perimeter of the wall were a number of experiments used to develop physics. In looking at these scientific setups, it struck me that research at its essence has not changed in thousands of years. It begins with a hypothesis, a nagging question wanting to be answered, a problem that couldn’t be solved, or for the sake of pure curiosity. Then, a carefully constructed experimental setup is developed to simulate the proper conditions related to the hypothesis. The experiment is conducted and data is collected. Finally, the scientist is tasked with discovering the reason behind the results – why did the experiment behave that way?
It was remarkable to me, to think that students all over the world (including myself) are diligently working on chipping away at questions of science. While our discipline has greatly changed since the time of Galileo – at its core, it remains the same; we seek answers to the same questions: why and how.
And while it was overwhelming to see early inventions of electrical machines, the development of the telescope, and groundbreaking experimental setups in physics, it was also inspiring. Science is a conglomeration of many different disciplines. In its early stages, it was the philosophers who theorized an idea and the scientists who were able to prove it. Our challenges and our physical boundaries for design are not the same as in the 15th century but we still must develop our own way to defy the odds, just as the scientific giants before us. Our priorities have shifted in the design of structures to pushing the limits of concrete cantilever spans, researching high-rise timber construction, understanding, better predicting, and successfully engineering for earthquakes, reducing our mark on the earth with greener practices, and countless other opportunities.
In this century, we have hindsight from the history of science and what we do with it is our choice; from there, we make our own legacy. As long as there is a desire to learn, a passion for knowledge, and an inexhaustible quest for answers, science and design will progress.
The next stop in Florence is to visit the famous Florence cathedral – Il Duomo di Firenze, and the beloved sculpture of Michelangelo’s David. Both masterpieces are close to Florentine hearts and inspirational for many all over the world.