Reconciling Science And Faith: Overall, Galileo Did Pretty Well For A College Dropout

February 20, 2012

The Nation:

A right thumb, a finger, a tooth. These were the contents of a reliquary acquired several years ago by a collector at an auction in Florence. Little did he know that for centuries the remains had been objects of profane devotion. Last seen in 1905, they had been sliced from the corpse of Galileo, along with another finger and a vertebra, during his highly publicized reburial in the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1737 almost 100 years after his death, and preserved in a slender case fashioned of glass and wood and crowned with a carved bust of the scientist. The reliquary’s new owner consulted Galileo experts about his find, and after the authenticity of its contents had been verified he donated it to the Museo Galileo, which is tucked behind the Uffizi in a quiet piazza overlooking the River Arno. (A dentist asked by the museum to examine the tooth concluded that Galileo suffered from gastric acid reflux and ground his teeth in his sleep.) The rediscovered reliquary is displayed adjacent to a smaller one containing Galileo’s other finger, a prized museum possession since 1927. Nearby are several artifacts of Galileo’s scientific genius: a telescope presented to the Medici and the broken objective lens of the original device with which Galileo sighted Jupiter’s four satellites in 1610.

Galileo was not the first scientist whose corpse was as revered as his corpus. That honor belongs to René Descartes, who was reburied numerous times after his death in 1650, initially to secure the return of his body to French soil and subsequently to install him in the pantheon of French genius. Yet Galileo’s remains in Florence have an added meaning. In 1633 the scientist was tried for heresy, having been accused of violating a 1616 papal decree condemning as contrary to Scripture the idea of a heliocentric universe, first described by Copernicus in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543). The Florentines who snatched a few of Galileo’s bones in 1737 sought to canonize the scientist as a counter-saint, even as the Roman Catholic Church, with a century of hindsight, relented on its decision to deny Galileo a public burial and monument worthy of his fame when he died. Times were changing, but not rapidly enough for Galileo’s most ardent disciples. Their veneration of a few body parts privately commemorated his martyrdom for the cause of science. The church’s interment of his other remains in a sepulcher adjacent to Michelangelo’s in Santa Croce designated him a heroic embodiment of Tuscan genius and creativity.

Understanding Galileo has been the task of historians ever since he became a mythical figure. His youngest disciple, Vincenzo Viviani, spent more than half a century trying to get his biography right, never quite managing to meet his own impossibly high expectations of how to write about a great scientist. Bertolt Brecht was so mesmerized by the particulars of Galileo’s life that he wrote three versions of it for the stage, the first while living in Nazi Germany, the second while in postwar America after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the third during his voluntary exile from McCarthy’s America in communist East Berlin. Brecht’s Galileo was simultaneously the victim of a tragedy perpetuated by his society, and the tragedy himself. As Brecht witnessed the evolving role of the scientist in the mid-twentieth century, he began to see similarities between Galileo and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who paid a high price for attempting to work on the Manhattan Project while resisting its core values. In this respect, it may be fairly said that Brecht got Galileo right more than any modern historian in recognizing that he belonged to the ages, and that our perspective on him would be ever changing.

The publication of two recent biographies of Galileo, by John Heilbron and David Wootton, coincided with the 400th anniversary of the publication of Starry Messenger (1610), the treatise in which Galileo reported the astronomical observations he had made with the instrument not yet called the telescope. Heilbron, a distinguished historian of physics and mathematics, has spent many years studying the relations between science and religion, including how the Roman Catholic Church stimulated and materially supported a research program of Catholic astronomy. Wootton has previously written on the history of atheism and unbelief, and about Galileo’s controversial Venetian friend Paolo Sarpi—a theologian and tireless critic of the papacy. In Venice there is a statue of Fra Paolo in Campo Santa Fosca commemorating his survival of a botched assassination attempt in October 1607. The cutthroats were sheltered and paid by Rome, yet Sarpi continued to defend freedom of thought and belief, both in conversation and in print, and to discuss science with Galileo. In Heilbron’s account, Galileo is a versatile connoisseur and critic; in Wootton’s, he is all but a modern scientist without faith.

Before the appearance of Starry Messenger, Galileo was known as a poorly dressed, occasionally sarcastic and mechanically adroit college dropout who kept a mistress and had sired three illegitimate children. He admired and imitated the prose of Dante, Machiavelli and Ariosto; he enjoyed reading poetry and liked to draw and tell a good joke. He learned a fair bit of music from his father, Vincenzo Galilei, a Medici court musician, yet rebelled against his father’s desire that he become a physician. He frequently quarreled with his mother, Giulia Ammannati, who seems to have thought that a session with the Florentine Inquisitors might curb her son’s insolence. Wootton makes these fraught familial relations the basis of his depiction of Galileo as a proud, stubborn and sensitive man, a portrait reminiscent of Arthur Koestler’s 1959 account of Galileo as an anti-hero. But Wootton overreaches when he makes some imaginative and not particularly well-substantiated hypotheses about a third (illegitimate) daughter and a late-blooming love affair.

In his formative years Galileo cultivated a highly fertile geometric imagination that would nourish his study of mathematics and physics, and especially mechanics. His invention, when he was in his 20s, of a lightweight hydrostatic balance earned him the admiration of senior mathematicians in Italy. Heilbron lovingly explores Galileo’s resourcefulness by explaining, recalculating and diagramming all his most important insights into the nature of things. This work has been done piecemeal by other historians of science, but it is Heilbron’s accomplishment to have created a complete, accessible yet technical synthesis of Galileo’s findings. Such reading is not for the mathematically faint of heart, but it is essential for understanding Galileo’s science. By integrating this material into a sharp-witted and ironic narrative of Galileo as a man of culture and learning, Heilbron portrays Galileo as a child of the Renaissance, a man who saw the lunar mountains not only through the lens of his telescope and by the point of his compass but also in the context of Ariosto’s fantastic descriptions of them inOrlando Furioso…

Read it all.

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