What Galileo Can Teach Us About Computer Science

About This Post

This is the first post in a series I abandoned. It was to be adapted from a talk I gave at the first "real" meeting of Pitt's Computer Science Club.

The talk recounted the history of two famous computer science clubs: MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club and the Homebrew Computer Club of Silicon Valley. Then, I discussed how we should learn from the examples of these clubs to create our own community of young technologists. But I kicked off the talk with a fun story about why we might study scientific history in the first place.

One Moon, Two Scientists

Galileo's Moon Harriot's Moon

These two drawings of the moon should convince you of the importance of learning about the history of technological development. They were both recorded around the same time, soon after the telescope was invented in the Netherlands. The one on the right was drawn by Thomas Harriot, an Englishman. The one on the left was drawn by Galileo Galilei, an Italian.

Galileo observed and recorded the intricate patterns of light and shadow that moved over the moon’s surface. From this he concluded that the moon was not perfectly smooth, as was believed at the time, but rather jagged, with mountains and valleys like those on Earth. This was his first major challenge to the geocentric cosmology of Aristotle.

Harriot saw the same moon as Galileo with the same technology, but his observations were not nearly as insightful. His application of the new telescope technology to magnify the moon was impressive, but he failed to draw the radical conclusions that Galileo did.

Art As Science

We can attribute the differences in these drawings to culture. Galileo was well-versed in the Italian Renaissance art of his time. The artistic revolution in Florence emphasized the use of light and shadow to depict depth. In part because of his artistic training, Galileo could infer a distant object’s shape from the shadows it cast. Meanwhile, the Renaissance had not yet reached England. His eye thus untrained, Harriot saw the same moon as Galileo but could not grasp the significance of the shadows.

I want us to take away two points here. The first is that in order to understand technological development, we also need to understand technology’s historical and cultural context. If we didn’t know about Renaissance art, we wouldn’t be able to conclude why an Italian was better suited to study the moon than an Englishman. The second is that to be a great technologist, it is not enough to master technical skills. Like Galileo, who studied drawing at the Academia delli Arti de Disegno, we also need to develop ourselves as humanists. Without that crucial connection to art, culture, and politics, we might stare a great breakthrough in the face like Harriot without really seeing it.

(By the way, for any Pitt students who need to fill their philosophy Gen Ed, HPS 430: Galileo and the Creation of Modern Science is an awesome class.)