Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Latest on Galileo

Last year saw two new biographies about Galileo by the heavy-hitting professors David Wooton and John Heilbron. I briefly mentioned them in an article I did for Standpoint magazine and the Times Literary Supplement has a more in-depth review (although the reviewer seems ignorant of early modern cosmology with his comments about how Galileo downgraded rather than upgraded the position of the earth).

Heilbron’s book, Galileo, is the more academic and traditional. He tends to underplay Galileo’s scientific achievements while noting that he had many other skills. The style is also rather stilted (Heilbron doesn’t seem to write easy books). He also indulges in post-modern nostrums such as imagined conversations between Galileo and his alter ego. I fear specialists will have to read this but others may find it heavy-going.

I found Wootton’s Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, both more enjoyable and more interesting. Wootton’s last book Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates, is a masterpiece and although his Galileo never quite reaches those heights, there is plenty of food for thought. Wootton is also an excellent writer who makes reading his revisionism a pleasure.

Most controversially, Wootton thinks Galileo was not a Christian, despite his protestations of loyalty to the Catholic Church. The evidence for this is rather thin and depends partly on a conspiracy theory. Wootton says that those of Galileo’s papers that incriminated him as a heretic were destroyed by his biographers keen to protect his name.

More interestingly, Wootton sides with Arthur Koestler in proclaiming Galileo the author of his own downfall (despite giving Koestler and indeed Feyerabend a kicking earlier in the book). As Wootton notes in his concluding chapter:

Galileo overstated overstated his own achievements in the Dialogue and thus provoked the Church into condemning him. This view, which presents Galileo as an overreacher, seems to me essentially correct… The clash, when it came, was not between an impersonal institution, the universal Church, on one hand and a dedicated scientist on the other. Rather it was a falling out between friends, a just punishment, a betrayal. Galileo was indeed a heretic, but worse (for heresy was much more common than historians have realised), he was disloyal and ungrateful. In the world of Counter Reformation Italy, heresy often went unpunished; disloyalty and ingratitude, on the other hand, were never tolerated.

His characterisation of the liberal Catholic school of Galileo studies (of which I am surely a member) is also illuminating. He says that we think Galileo was a better theologian than the Inquisition (because he correctly showed in his Letter to Grand Duchess Christina that scientific questions do not have to impinge on the faith). But we also think that the inquisition was made up of better scientists than Galileo (because they could see that Galileo had no proof that the earth moved when he thought that he did). While this is put rather bluntly, I must plead guilty as charged. And not even Wootton’s entertaining book has convinced me otherwise.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

James, may I please have your opinion of 'Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius' by Shea & Artigas?