Galileo and Einstein: Using History to Teach Basic Physics to Nonscientists
About ten years ago, the University of Virginia began encouraging faculty to give University Seminars, which could be rather informal one-semester two credit hours minicourses, intended mainly for first year students, with a maximum enrollment of twenty. I had been reading and enjoying Galileo’s Two New Sciences at the time, and it occurred to me that this text could perhaps be the basis of a University Seminar for nonscience students. The book covers a wide variety of topics. Admittedly, some sections are hopelessly obscure, but then whole stretches of the book are beautifully written and very illuminating. For example, Galileo gives a clear analysis of why there can be no giants, and the arguments he presents are as relevant as ever – easily applied to demolish many Hollywood fantasies, from giant ants to shrunken kids. His discussion of falling motion is of course a classic: why Aristotle had to be wrong, and, more practically, how to figure out the range of a cannon. When I began to put the Seminar together, I decided to add some selections from The Starry Messenger: Galileo’s memorable description of his discovery of the Moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, and mountains on the Moon, and how well it all fitted into Copernicus’ scheme.