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Thinking with Objects

The Transformation of Mechanics in the Seventeenth Century

Domenico Bertoloni Meli

Publication Year: 2006

Thinking with Objects offers a fresh view of the transformation that took place in mechanics during the 17th century. By giving center stage to objects—levers, inclined planes, beams, pendulums, springs, and falling and projected bodies—Domenico Bertoloni Meli provides a unique and comprehensive portrayal of mechanics as practitioners understood it at the time. Bertoloni Meli reexamines such major texts as Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, and Newton’s Principia, and in them finds a reliance on objects that has escaped proper understanding. From Pappus of Alexandria to Guidobaldo dal Monte, Bertoloni Meli sees significant developments in the history of mechanical experimentation, all of them crucial for understanding Galileo. Bertoloni Meli uses similarities and tensions between dal Monte and Galileo as a springboard for exploring the revolutionary nature of seventeenth-century mechanics. Examining objects helps us appreciate the shift from the study to the practice of mechanics and challenges artificial dichotomies among practical and conceptual pursuits, mathematics, and experiment.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi-xii

A few years ago, while I was immersed in my studies on mechanistic medicine, I received a request by Dan Garber for a chapter on motion and mechanics in the seventeenth century. Although I had often toyed with the idea of working on that topic, Dan’s request forced me to order and develop my thoughts and served as a catalyst for my project. I am indebted to Dan for his initial stimulus and for his en-...

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pp. 1-17

Over the last decades the historiography of motion and mechanics in the seventeenth century has been dominated by the notion of laws of nature, especially the law now known as the law of inertia. In the introduction to Galileo Studies (originally published in 1939), Alexandre Koyr

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CHAPTER ONE: Machines in the Field, in the Book, and in the Study

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pp. 18-39

In the sixteenth century the major tradition in mechanics was associated with the science of machines, especially those known as the simple machines: the lever, balance, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Theoretical concerns about simple machines often went hand in hand with practical considerations, as shown by the contents and publication history of two classics in the field, the pseudo-...

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CHAPTER TWO: Floating Bodies and a Mathematical Science of Motion

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pp. 40-65

In the previous chapter we considered mechanics as a science of machines and briefly examined some areas of intersection with natural philosophy in the study of motion. We shall now explore another area of mechanics that interacted with natural philosophy in a different fashion and in which machines took a secondary role, namely the tradition of Archimedes’ Floating Bodies. In addition to Archi-...

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CHAPTER THREE: The Formulation of New Mathematical Sciences

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pp. 66-104

In 1592 Galileo moved from the mathematics chair at Pisa, which he had held for three years, to the more prestigious and better-paid chair of mathematics at Padua, a position he retained until his return to Tuscany in 1610. He owed both jobs to dal Monte’s help, but links with the Marquis were not simply a matter of patronage. Dal Monte’s foundational concerns were crucial to Galileo. In the 1612...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Novel Reflections and Quantitative Experiments

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pp. 105-134

This chapter explores the investigations on mechanics and motion and the many different ways in which Galileo’s masterpieces were read to about 1650. This was a period of intense research and debate, including such major works as Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle (1636), Cogitata physico-mathematica (1644), and Novarum observationum tomus III (1647), Baliani’s De motu naturali (1638 and...

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CHAPTER FIVE: The Motion and Collision of Particles

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pp. 135-160

Around the middle of the seventeenth century the mechanical philosophy emerged as a leading player on the intellectual scene. According to this school of thought, small particles—whether atomic and moving in a vacuum, as for Gassendi, or indefinitely divisible and moving in a plenum, as for Descartes—were the constituent blocks of the universe. Action at a distance and the Renaissance...

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INTERMEZZO: Generational and Institutional Changes

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pp. 161-165

This intermezzo provides an outline of some significant changes of venue and major transformations in the way mechanics was practiced during the seventeenth century. I begin by listing some of the works from the 1630s to the 1650s mentioned in the previous chapters in order to consider them from a different perspective, taking into account chronological developments rather than styles of in-...

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CHAPTER SIX: The Equilibrium and Motion of Liquids

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pp. 166-189

In the second half of the seventeenth century the mathematical study of liquids, notably water and other incompressible fluids, was characterized by two types of approach, one based on motion and the other on statics. The former was pioneered in Italy, where scholars framed their views largely in a Galilean fashion, treating fluids very much like solid bodies. For example, falling bodies were...

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CHAPTER SEVEN: Projected, Oscillating, and Orbiting Bodies

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pp. 190-223

This chapter deals with the study of projected, oscillating, and orbiting bodies from the 1660s to the early 1680s. This area constituted the backbone of traditional histories of seventeenth-century mechanics, but now it has been recognized that it is unhelpful to give it exclusive attention or separate it from other fields. Issues such as the conceptualization and mathematical representation of speed, ac-...

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CHAPTER EIGHT: Colliding Bodies, Springs, and Beams

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pp. 224-254

Beginning about the last third of the seventeenth century, we observe a cluster of publications on themes that had been investigated in the 1630s and 1640s, such as collision, the motion of strings and springs, and the resistance of materials. These were themes central to the history of mechanics, leading to new rules of impact, a mathematical formulation of the oscillations of springs, and a deeper...

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CHAPTER NINE: A New World-System

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pp. 255-287

This chapter is devoted to Newton’s handling of falling, projected, oscillating, and especially orbiting bodies in Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687, 17132, 17263), a work of extraordinary depth and complexity with a rich interpretive history. Although some of its propositions have always been considered crucial, others have had a varied history, and readers’ perceptions have changed...

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CHAPTER TEN: Causes, Conservation, and the New Mathematics

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pp. 288-307

Galileo’s views on several aspects of the science of motion were a central matter of debate among his contemporaries soon after the publication of the Dialogo and Discorsi. His reflections shaped significant portions of the works of scholars from Torricelli and Gassendi to Mersenne and Riccioli. By contrast, a dozen years after its publication, Newton’s Principia had attracted far fewer debates than...

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CONCLUSION: Mapping the Transformations of Mechanics

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pp. 308-316

Looking back at the ways in which mechanics was transformed in the course of the long seventeenth century, one detects a stepping-stone approach venturing from known and established areas to new problems and domains. This approach involved different strategies, such as the unmasking of levers or other devices in more complex objects, the search for and application of principles or laws, the use...


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pp. 317-354


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pp. 355-377


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pp. 379-389

E-ISBN-13: 9780801889448
E-ISBN-10: 0801889448
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801884276
Print-ISBN-10: 0801884276

Page Count: 408
Illustrations: 100 line drawings
Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Physics -- History -- 17th century.
  • Mechanics -- History -- 17th century.
  • Motion -- History -- 17th century.
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