The Peripatetic text typically called Mechanica or Mechanical Problems was long attributed to Aristotle, though confidence in his authorship later dwindled and it is usually now more cautiously attributed to a later member of the Peripatetic school. The Mechanica is framed for the most part as a series of questions about mechanical principles and devices, ranging from the fundamental and abstract (as when the author asks why the lever allows small forces to move large weights) to the particular and applied (as when he asks why beds are typically built with a certain form factor). These are answered with reference to geometrical analogues, diagrams, real-world observables and thought-experiments, often composites of results about simpler systems explored elsewhere in the work.
Courtney Roby‘s research interests focus on the literary aspects of scientific and technical texts from the ancient world, the interaction of verbal and visual elements in those texts, and the definition and dissemination of scientific work. Her first book (Technical Ekphrasis in Greek and Roman Science and Literature: The Written Machine between Alexandria and Rome, Cambridge University Press 2016) traces the literary techniques used in the textual representation of technological artifacts from Hellenistic Greece to late-ancient Rome. Her new book project focuses on Hero of Alexandria, whose multidisciplinary technical treatises spanned topics from pure geometry to the construction of mechanical automata, and who remained an influential figure in the history of mechanics through the 18th century. Other recent, current, and forthcoming projects address how contemporary philosophy of science can help us understand the “scientific fictions” of Seneca’s Natural Questions, how cognitive-scientific ideas of “extended mind” are reflected in Ptolemy’s astronomical and harmonic works, and how early printed editions of ancient technical treatises rework ancient authors’ materials for a new context of production and propagation.
This event is sponsored by the Department of Classics at Columbia University and is part of the Columbia Classics Colloquium series.