Crystal Hall Reconstructs Galileo’s Library, Digitally

Crystal Hall

Crystal Hall (Photo credit: Jen Jack Gieseking CC BY NC-SA 2013)

What can modern computational techniques tell us about science, philosophy, and culture in the Italian Renaissance? Just ask Crystal Hall, a scholar of Galileo Galilei and, as of this fall, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities for Bowdoin’s new Digital and Computational Studies Initiative.

Hall has spent the past decade working on identifying 637 volumes in Galileo’s library and using digital analysis to create not just an archive but an interactive collection, revealing pathways between Galileo’s writing, his life, and the arts and sciences of the time period in which he lived.

In an Oct. 24 talk in the Beam Classroom of the Visual Arts Center, Hall explored the challenges and opportunities of digital tools for humanities research, focusing particularly on her study of how poetry shaped Galileo’s philosophical ideas. She discussed the process of comparing one of his poems, Assayer of 1623, to Ludovico Ariosto’s 1516 epic poem Orlando Furioso (Orlando Enraged), an Italian Renaissance bestseller that Galileo is known to have memorized.

The digital tools that Hall used for this task were computer languages and programs such as XML, Python, Natural Language Toolkit, VoyantTools, and plagiarism software – tools that helped her perform a multitude of textual analysis tasks on a large scale, such as searching for passages where Galileo used quotations and comparing words and context clues across the texts.

While Hall has found Galileo’s works to be heavily influenced by the language of epic poetry, she also found differences that highlighted interesting aspects of his writing. For example, the fact that he used the word “but” profusely in Assayer (twice as often as Ariosto did) pointed out a “zig-zag” element in Galileo’s philosophy.

“Often the usage of these tools raises more questions than it answers,” Hall said, making for a long process of exploration. Yet for their ability to reveal dimensions of context and connections that were inaccessible via traditional techniques, digital tools have proven immensely valuable to Hall’s work.

Next spring Hall will be teaching some of these methods in a new course called “The Rhetoric of Big Data from Copernicus to Climate Change” as part of the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative. The initiative’s first course offering is this fall’s “Gateway to the Digital Humanities,” taught by Professor of Computer Science Eric Chown and Professor of Art History Pamela Fletcher, in which students are learning to use a wide range of computational techniques for studying topics within the humanities.

Click here to read the blog of the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative.

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