Transactions of the Accademia del Cimento

A multi-task database

Research Project Proposal

December 1997

(Marco Beretta & Andrea Scotti)

The surviving manuscripts, instruments, and texts related to the activities of the Accademia del Cimento (1657-1667) represent on the richest documentary fund of the history of 17th century science.

The manuscripts relevant to the Academy, which are embodied in the Collezione Galileiana housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence, comprise 49 volumes and are thus structured:

Altogether, the documents of this collection amount to 17,000 pages, of which only a minimal part, less than 10%, has been published.

Given the quantity of documents, it is not surprising that all the projects which after 1942 have attempted to realise a critical edition of the Accademia del Cimento papers have never gone any further than partial surveys. Only recently, thanks to the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, a pilot project for the digital transcription of the correspondence has been brought to a conclusion.

The application of new technologies to the classification of manuscript documents and instruments, allows us to eliminate traditional obstacles, and helps us to explore from a new perspective the historical significance of primary sources. Until recently, historians of science attributed to the analysis and editing of documentary sources a subsidiary function to their hermeneutic interpretation. The critical editions of the scientific correspondence of Newton, Mersenne and Darwin can not be considered, nor do they make any claim of being, historiographic works tout court, but rather instruments that allow historians to support through empirical evidence their historiographic approaches.

A meditated application of new technologies to historical research can resolve the existing dichotomy between documentary history and social history of science, allowing an organic interaction between the primary sources and the social and cultural context to which they refer. Thanks to the application of the multi task database, the characteristics of which are described below, it will be possible to lay out an interpretative instrument capable of organising a very large number of different documents, putting us in the position of being able to look at the Accademia del Cimento from an entirely new perspective. Indeed, it will no longer be a matter of operating, to use a fortunate metaphor, the anatomy of a scientific institution, but of reconstructing, through a true archaeology of knowledge, the complex structure of the Academy, recomposing all of its elements into one coherent body. This synthetic approach will allow us to correlate all of the documents and instruments among themselves, recreating the operational and linguistic context that constituted the experimental practice of the academicians. For each document the following will be available: a transcription; a digital image of the original item; a dictionary which will register all the words which occur in the texts; a linguistic survey, through a select thesaurus of key words and their English concordance; a historical and bibliographical note; and an automatic link to all of the other manuscript documents or instruments with which the document is connected.

Finally, the results of the digital classification will be accessible on Internet, at the web-sites of the participating institutions, adopting a user-friendly system of consultation.

It is obvious, however, that the ambition to recreate the context of the Academy can not be realised with a mere digital classification of the documents, rather it is necessary to create a powerful system of integrated data bases that make it possible to discover what was not even conceivable with traditional hermeneutic methods. Within this perspective, the potential for the application of digital classification to historical research is yet largely unexplored. The grandiose projects of digital catalogues, such as the one recently launched by the Library of Congress in Washington, limit themselves to creating databases for the cataloguing of printed sources. Thus far, there are no existing elaborated models of the classification of manuscripts and scientific instruments. With the hope of filling this gap, I have recently designed, in collaboration with Dr. Andrea Scotti, a database prototype which has been used in the classification of 1265 scientific manuscripts kept in the Uppsala University Library. On the basis of this first attempt, I have designed a far more complex database which will have the task of reconstructing all of the phases of the Accademia del Cimento in a dynamic way so as not to bind the interpretation of the documents to preconceived outlines, but rather to render the possible itineraries for interpretation practically limitless. To give an example, with the mere induction of a query, it will be possible to know how many times a given experiment was repeated, the frequency of the use of instruments, and the occurrence of scientific and technical terms linked to the experiment. Hundreds of thousands of data will be available to the user according to her/his personal approach.

Furthermore, the nature of this database will make it possible to export and integrate the data with other databases, facilitating not only the user's access, but also the active concourse of developments and results obtained.

To make possible such an elaborate query system, it is evident that the database must have a complex structure, able to reflect the quality and quantity of the Cimento documents and create links among them. The structure of this database can be schematised by the following outline:

Net structure of the Accademia del Cimento databases

User standard query mask

Advanced user query mask

General inventory & standard query interface database

Datatype databases & query navigation

The innovative value of such a database for the history of science, and more generally for the management and interpretation of documentary sources, delineates an approach which would have consequences that are not yet predictable, though it is already evident that the power of such an instrument exponentially multiplies the traditional hermeneutic possibilities. The example of the Accademia del Cimento, as well as informing us on the complex mechanisms that presided over the birth of modern experimentalism, could also offer us a powerful model of a new way of understanding and practising the history of science.

Dissemination of the research project

A user friendly database, which will be available on the web sites of the participating institutions, will make readily accessible also to remote users the images of all the manuscripts of the Accademia del Cimento and their transcriptions. The users will be also provided with historical, bibliographical and analytical information concerning each item classified in the multi media edition.

The user will have a dynamic access to the following integrated archives:

1. Digital image of the document/instrument.

2. Digital simulation of the main experiments performed in the Accademia.

3. Chronology. Dates of documents/experiments/instruments.

4. Language archive.

5. Transcription of the documents and English translation.

6. Thesaurus with key words and concordance with English terms.

7. Dictionary of all the words occurring in the documents.

8. Subject archive.

9. Name archive (authors/constructors/ names quoted/names of instruments) with a concordance with the authority file.

10. Bibliography.

 

In order to submit a query the user will have two possibilities:

1. Standard query. This query will be structured by the options provided by the standard mask.

2. Individual query. This query will require some knowledge of SQL and will offer the user the possibility of a free itinerary .