Scrap paper

What can a single piece of scrap paper hold?

Imagine going down to your local university library and coming across a piece of paper in the archives, long-forgotten, covered in the dusts of time. You pull it out and gaze upon the scribbles from the hand of a man from 400 years ago…

…who is drafting a letter to the prince of Venice. He’s trying to sell him something—a new military instrument. It’s called the “telescope”, and its seller, a man named Galileo, says it enables a commander to “discover the ships of the enemy two hours before they can be seen with the natural vision…and to judge their strength and be ready to chase them, to fight them, or to flee from them.” The pitch has the easy charm of a used car salesman and the bravado of a man who is attempting to profit off of an invention he did not, in truth, invent (he got the idea from lens makers in Holland).

But in the bottom margin, something else—something completely different—is recorded: scribbles, sketches, and figures. Observations from the same instrument—but of what? Stars, of some sort, evidently. Some are repeated with minor variations, as if the man who sketched them was driving himself mad attempting to tease out the secrets of what he’s seeing. And some are indecipherable—in particular, two figures mysteriously marked “10” and “11”…

It all sounds like the setup of a badly-written symbology-detective novel, but in 2009, when this long-neglected scrap of paper from the Univerity of Michigan-Ann Arbor’s library was sent to Harvard historian of science Owen Gingerich, he realized that what this scrap of paper held was nothing less than the moment humanity became aware of its place in the cosmos.

* * *

As I mentioned, I took a science documentary filmmaking course this semester taught by Gino Del Guercio. It turned out to be an absolute blast, a fantastic class. I’ve done photography for a few years now, and dabbled in film with friends in high school and college but having an excuse to attempt to hone those skills into something potentially marketable—that was serious fun, and seriously rewarding.

In truth, I did it while also trying to balance four graduate courses in astronomy, and both an RAship and a TAship—and I paid a price academically. But even so, it was worth it to figure out the limits of what I can actually get done in sustained periods of 20 hour work days.

Anyway, this is the final project that I collaborated on with three of my classmates. Owen Gingerich was kind enough to talk to us about his new analysis (and also gave us a tour of Harvard’s Great Refractor, regaled us with tales from his career, and showed us his personal collection of 16th and 17th century astronomical texts). Boston University professors Kenneth Brecher and Michael Mendillo also graciously agreed to be interviewed. Unfortunately, in the end, the only bits of the interview with Becher that we used were the ones where he said nice things about Galileo; his rousing advocacy of Kepler as history’s first true physicist that immediately followed wound up on the cutting room floor. And sadly, we cut out Michael entirely. But we couldn’t have done it without their insight and analysis.


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