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Reconstructing scientific experiments for didactic purposes may have unintended side-effects

Posted Nov 17 2011 5:00am

I’ve just watched, with great fascination, a series of short movies produced at the Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica  in Firenze to illustrate classical physics experiments with original 19th century apparatus. Like this one:

(There are many others here .)

Let me say first — I do not, by any means, doubt the serious intentions behind this series of didactical movies. They are produced by Paolo Brenni , a world-renowned expert in the history of scientific instruments, so I take for granted that the set-up is historically accurate in every painstaking detail, and that all parts of the historical apparatuses are original.

Nor am I generally against using videos for demonstrating classical scientific experiments. Reconstructing classical experiments is a valid and useful activity (as Otto Sibum , among others, has written extensively about), both in historical scholarship and in teaching.

But the mis-en-scène of this particular set of movies, especially those about electrostatic discharges, have so many interesting distracting connotations that they risk undermining the intended noble didactic value.

Already the opening sequence of white laconic text on a black background raises the spectator’s expectations of a 1920s silent movie.

Then, walking in from the left, enters a serious-looking mature gentleman (in fact, Dr. Brenni himself). With his brownish-red apron, and bushy moustache, he looks more like an artisan than a scientist, and with his delicate white gloves on (museum curators always wear white gloves when they touch original artefacts in public) he is somewhat reminiscent of an illusionist, who enters the scene of the magic act.

Behind the illusionist is a wall cupboard filled with curious, anonymous and slightly fascinating instruments. The machinery on the bench, which is covered with a piece of light green cloth, has all the qualities of steam punk — it’s mechanical and electrical, it’s made of brass and wood, in golden, silver, dark brown or black colours.

The magic act begins with some carefully executed preparations, like pouring a liquid, grinding a plate with a piece of skin (see here ), or slowly winding a metallic chain (chains are often used ingredients in steam punk!) around protruding parts of the mechanical outfit.

Then enters the illusionist’s female (sic!) assistant, whose only role in the scene is to wind the wheels that produce the build-up of electric charges (no sexual connotations intended, of course).

And finally, il finale, the moment of discharge that ends the magical act — and the camera zooms in on the spectacular result.

This and the other movies in the series were prepared and performed by Paolo Brenni at the Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica of Florence with the collaboration of Anna Giatti. Filming and editing by Antonio Chiavacci of Astavideo.

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