IN MY VIEW: The man who shed new light on our universe

It is not an act of mere hyperbole to describe the great Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei as a true "Renaissance" man. Known to his scholarly contemporaries not only as a learned professor of mathematics, Galileo was also a talented musician, an exceptional artist, a gifted writer, a cerebral philosopher, and an all-around gadgeteer. And that's just for starters, according to the eminent author of a new biography/science history recently published in a major torrential flood of re-examinations of Galileo and his life and works.

It was said that, in his time, Galileo could compete with the best lutanists in Tuscany; he could advise leading painters and poets on matters of contemporary taste; and he would often recite vast stretches of Petrarch, Dante, and Ariosto by heart. Galileo considered himself to be primarily a philosopher, an appellation that often covers a multitude of sins. But more on that later.

Some 400 years after the publication of his masterpiece Sidereus Nuncius, scholars are still digging deep into the astonishing astronomical discoveries of Galileo and are coming up with more jewels and even some outright blunders. So it's no surprise that, on the 400th anniversary, we should be subjected to a scholarly deluge of "Galileo-iana," much of it banal and pedestrian. But there are some exceptions.

Among the more valuable heavyweight offerings is a 500-page tome modestly entitled Galileo, by John L. Heilbron, Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California–Berkeley (Oxford University Press, 2010, 508 pages). The book is both a detailed biography of Galileo and a remarkably thorough history of his scientific discoveries. That's a task that is difficult to pull off, but author Heilbron manages the process with remarkable insight as to Galileo the political animal and Galileo the philosopher. But, be warned, Heilbron doesn't make it easy for the casual reader. Galileo did not suffer fools gladly and the same could be said for this particular author. This is not an easy read.

Life was not easy for an astronomer in the early 1600s. Even if you had powerful friends, as Galileo did, any deflections from the rigorous views of the Pope and his cardinals could result in excruciating tortures and even death by burning at the stake. A summons to Rome was often a death warrant and would result in confiscation of any offensive writings and, often, lifetime incarceration.

As Heilbron notes, "[Galileo] changed the world in ways that others could not, not by inventing telescopic astronomy or finding a few principles of motion, but by bringing in his special idiom some fundamental problems in the culture of his time so crisply into conflict that they could not be avoided or resolved."

To get the most out of Heilbron, you may have to revisit your Euclidean geometry and the infamous history of the Inquisition and its role in suppressing the researches of Copernicus. To this day, the Vatican still has reservations about releasing all of Galileo's banned works supporting the Copernican view of astronomy. Heilbron brings the reader almost up to date with the acceptance of Galileo's works from the notorious Index in 1820 and later compromises offered by the Second Vatican Council.

However, Heilbron is not all serious business. Indeed, at the end of the concluding chapter, he speculates, tongue firmly in cheek, on the possibility of the Roman Catholic church declaring sainthood for Galileo. I quote the author: "According to Galileo's mechanics, the slightest force can move the greatest weight given sufficient time. The direction of motion is clear. Who can doubt that within another 400 years, the church will recognize Galileo's divine gifts, atone for his sufferings, ignore his arrogance, make him a saint?"

Well, not in my view, professore! Then again, maybe Heilbron is serious.

To get the most out of Heilbron, you may have to revisit your Euclidean geometry and the infamous history of the Inquisition and its role in suppressing the researches of Copernicus.

Click to EnlargeJeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor


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