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8. Abstract on: Earth Science & Education [Prof. Mottana, Italy]

Start Date:
12. October 2017, 09:45
Finish date:
12. October 2017, 10:45



Water and Fire as major Tools for the Development of Technoscience in the 15th-16th Centuries


An Outline

For a long time, brute force was the only implement available to humans to accomplish their basic life needs, and water and fire were the essential tools to make the best to increase their body strength out of the gathered food. Only after the Neolithic revolution, men started using water and fire to deal with certain solid materials too that were useful to upgrade their living standards. They controlled water to get the best production in agriculture, and fire to extract metals from ores dug out of the earth. Both practices implied an epistemological approach. Nevertheless, men drew it from customary empirical practices rather than from inquire, thus the development of civilization roots on such primitive, purely empirical and casual attempts at controlling water and fire. Indeed, historical studies demonstrate that the ability of humans of reaching a knowledgeable use of water and fire proceeded stepwise, and often, after some times of rapid upgrade, it did step back to a rather crude approach. As early as the 15th century, little or no realscience upgraded beyond empiricism, the more so as those who knew better avoided spreading their knowledge, which they reserved to trade companions, when not to philosophical addicts. In western Europe, in particular, the empirical use of water and fire continued until a sudden step ahead was provoked that stirred the operators, and this took place when they came in contact with theoretical ideas developed mainly by the ancient Greeks and perfected later by Arabs. Blending operational experience and theoretical ideas is the reason of Technoscience, and this occurred in the 15th-16th century. As for water, understanding of its properties and exploitation of its power delayed until the inspiring words of Archimedes became available via complete, reliable translations and comments such as those by Domenico Commendino and Guidobaldo del Monte. When combined with the empirical results by Niccolò Tartaglia, Galileo Galilei and Simon Stevin and with mathematical analyses by Marino Ghetaldi they gave rise to Hydrostatics and, later, to Hydraulics. The best outcome of such a multiple approach was the mathematical expression of specific gravity (gravitas in specie) by Robert Boyle, which paved the way to Isaac Newton’s new Physics. As for fire, the empirical work by Vannoccio Biringuccio, vastly improved by the interpretative essays of Georgius Agricola laid solid grounds to a new science that one named Metallurgy, as it involved a wider methodology of dealing with ores to extract metals than Pirotechnia, as proposed by Biringuccio, did. Indeed, by incorporating some of the clumsy, but complex experiments made by Alchemy, Metallurgy widened and deepened, giving rise to Mineralogy, on one side, and Chemistry, on the other side. In conclusion, understanding the history of foundations and upgrading of these new sciences requires combining historical and epistemological aspects (primary sources in several languages, historical hypotheses, shared research results with consensus interpretation, etc.) with logical and mathematical explanation.

     In my talk, I will describe Galileo’s early achievements in Hydrostatics, starting from the re-interpretation of his original writings, and I will not refrain from pointing out the faults of his reasoning that derived from a crude application of the lever rule disregarding the inaccurate consideration of metal alloying i.e., the effect of fire on a mixture.. I will then describe Boyle’s full interpretation of the hydrostatic problem and the slow but unrestrainable progress in understanding specific gravity as a primary property of all the constituents of the Earth: not only minerals and ores, or metals obtained by the action of fire, but gemstones, liquids and even gases. It took three centuries to fully dismantle the faulty epistemological concept of a solid Earth where all constituents are in direct contact one to another with no vacuum in between, as Aristotle has left as inheritance to the following generations. The present accepted model follows the opposite epistemological concept: atoms have their main mass concentrated in a very small volume and bind with the near atoms located at comparably much greater distance in vacuum through forces that oblige such near neighbours to locate according one out to 230 space groups, each one following a precise rule of symmetry. Only recently, such rules have been bypassed both in natural and synthetic materials. This has still to enter the epistemological thought, with consequences that nobody can clearly foresee yet.



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