Now in its 10th year, Instructor Elizabeth Cavicchi’s seminar EC.050 (Recreate Experiments from History) engages students in recreating the earliest experiments as a means to understanding what scientists and engineers learned centuries ago. In the process, students deepen their understanding of how the earliest scientists and engineers understood the natural world.
While this was MIT senior Ronald Heisser’s smallest MIT course in terms of class size, it was actually his most fruitful one. "We discussed everything from astrolabes and Islamic tile stone-cutting to Franz Reuleaux, Faraday, and Feynman,” Heisser wrote in his blog.
The course is multifaceted and truly experiential involving exploration, observation, wondering aloud, questioning preconceived ideas, and experiments. Students had the opportunity to observe a demonstration of traditional lacemaking as a means to understanding how geometrical symmetries are constructed with thread; saw up close a 17th century Persian astrolabe housed at Harvard’s Houghton library; and observed the MIThenge phenomenon when the sun can be seen down the entire length of the Infinite.
Investigations continued past spring semester for both Heisser and Francesca Liuni, a graduate student in architecture. Both students, with the support of the Edgerton Center, traveled to Turin, Italy, in September with Cavicchi to participate in the annual Scientific Instrument Commission’s meeting.
Heisser presented a poster portraying the mayhem of turbulence and its notably intransigent behaviors. Liuni presented a poster structured to demonstrate the geometrical projections that are engraved on historical astrolabes. “I had the opportunity to test my idea by presenting it to some of the most important scholars in the field of science history,” said Liuni.
Their joint poster questioned ways of putting the ideals of geometry into dialogue with the real mechanical world. Heisser and Liuni were intrigued by Archimedes’ claim that he developed new geometrical understandings through exploring mechanical behaviors, such as the lever. Their search for a present-day research analogue where mechanical investigation interrelates with geometrical reasoning brought them to the Reuleaux Triangle, a shape of constant width. When this curved triangle is rotated within a square frame, the vertices trace the square’s perimeter. The application of the concept can be found in a drill that cuts square holes. By making diagrams and 3-D printed models of the Reuleaux triangle, Heisser and Liuni charted historical and still-open questions that figure in its research history and proposed an improvement on the square-hole cutter.
For Heisser, the conference was eye-opening. “The main thing I learned from the conference, besides the stories of so many artifacts no longer known by today’s scientific population, was just that this whole realm of people and study exists!”
“I heard talks, presentations, and discussions ranging from patent wars in 18th century England to the famous Milliken’s oil drop experiment. I even watched a man destroy an oscilloscope, in the name of tactile understanding, to the tune of electronic music!” wrote Heisser.
Read Heisser's Blog and watch a 2-minute video of Heisser drawing out a Geometric Mean Theorum Reliance Tree.