Science is a Story

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This brief reflection, written long before the launch of Galileo's World, was originally created for Sooner Horizons, and is now excerpted from the iPad Exhibit Guide.  It explains the interpretative rather than descriptive approach to captions and other aspects of the exhibit.

Question:  “How many of the books on display are facsimiles?”  
Answer:  None.  They are all original.

Question:  “How many of the books on display are on loan?”  
Answer:  None.  They are all from the special collections of OU Libraries.

Question:  “If they are all originals, and all from OU Libraries, then why are you not describing the books themselves in your labels?”
Answer:  The occasion of OU’s 125th anniversary has defined our approach to this temporary exhibition.  Dive into the various chapters of this Exhibit Guide, and you’ll soon discover that captions and labels are interpretative, sometimes provocative, rather than bibliographic or descriptive. For a bibliographic description of a book, please consult our online catalog. 

In this exhibit, our focus is not on the books themselves, but on how they tell stories that connect the world of Galileo with the world of OU today.

Science is a story, an ongoing journey. Stories connect people all across campus and around the world. When we encounter the rare books, we are presented with stories that are windows upon different worlds. They draw us into sights we have not seen before, take us down roads we have not traveled before, and lead us to share in stories about which the last word can never be written.

In the natural sciences, Galileo’s World presents us with stories of physics, astronomy, mathematics, geology, natural history, microscopy, comparative anatomy, meteorology, chemistry, engineering and architecture, to name a few. For example, Galileo’s friends in the Academy of the Lynx published one of the rarest works in the history of geology, a treatise on the origin of petrified wood. Another member of the Lynx coined the name “microscope” for Galileo’s compound-lens instrument, a “telescope accommodated for viewing small things very close up,” while two other friends in the Lynx used Galileo’s microscope to produce the first published microscopic observations, a study of the bee. Only a handful of copies are extant. Galileo’s masterwork in physics includes an analysis of the bones of animals of differing size and weight, showing that a giant like Paul Bunyan would not appear simply as an extraordinarily large man with the same proportions. 

These stories intertwine the natural sciences and humanities, both in Galileo’s era and at OU today. How many literature students know that Galileo gave lectures on Dante or wrote a book debating the literary merits of Tasso and Ariosto? Why did Galileo prefer to write in dialogue form, and in the Tuscan vernacular? Do our students appreciate that, had it not been for Galileo’s training in music, his inclined plane experiment would have been unsuccessful? Or that Galileo’s father played an important role in the invention of Italian opera? What new levels of understanding and mutual appreciation might our students acquire when they discover that, had it not been for Galileo’s training in perspective drawing and Renaissance techniques for handling light and shadow, he would not have been able to make his telescopic discoveries? 

Some people regard history as over and done with, irrelevant and obvious. Yet history, and our understanding of it, is drama. Just as with the stories of law, politics, religion or international relations in our world today, everything might have turned out otherwise. Galileo’s treatise on the Bible and science quoted Augustine throughout, and was positively affirmed by Pope John Paul II. We might imagine that to a contemporary observer, nothing could possibly have gone wrong. To navigate the politics of church, state, court and university in his time, Galileo became a shrewd and accomplished master of political science. What went wrong? Galileo’s trial offers an anti-paradigm for our sober reflection. It was a colossal failure in terms of both popular opinion and legal theory. Indeed, the case against Galileo was deficient according to the prosecution’s own terms. Even after the trial had begun, most observers expected a diplomatic compromise would be worked out. Again, what went wrong?

The stories of Galileo’s World bring the worlds of Asia, America and the Middle East together. Galileo had a friend who went to China, and wrote works in Chinese. Galileo’s World invites our students to ponder why one of the most impressive works of the scientific revolution portrays Galileo in Middle Eastern dress, and how the so-called Scientific Revolution was influenced by the natural knowledge of the natives of central Mexico.

Galileo’s World draws us into stories like these, and so brings the diverse worlds of a modern research university together. To engage such stories is an active, not a passive experience. Thus, in addition to supporting the research of advanced scholars, special collections at OU Libraries invite students to enter the drama for themselves, to explore exhibitions as opportunities for undergraduate research. A story-oriented exhibition does not consist of dusty cases full of musty old books. 

Think of Galileo’s World as a form of performance art. The exhibition itself merely provides the stage and the props. You are the cast! Through vigorous conversation and various exhibition-related activities, let us together throw open the “windows upon worlds” which the rare books present to all of us. What is your story? What does Galileo’s World mean to you?

With this exhibition, OU becomes part of the ongoing story of Galileo. Come join in the journey!