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The year 1564 was a bountiful year. Although Michelangelo died in that year, there were, as it were, adequate replacements and extensions of his genius. Shakespeare was born. And Galileo was born. Shakespeare would go on to redefine dramatic literature by changing the very form and structure of Classical Greek drama and ignoring Aristotle's rules of dramatic literature. Galileo would go on to redefine science by changing the very form and structure of the perceived universe and ignoring Aristotle's laws of physics and cosmology. These two geniuses changed the fundamental way in which we come to know about ourselves and our universe. And both were great popularizers of their methods. Shakespeare filled the theatres and Galileo made astronomy a popular pastime.
When, early in the seventeenth century, Galileo looked at the heavens through his telescope, he had little idea that the consequences of his action would reverberate through the world of ideas like a tsunami. What he saw would shake the foundations of the Church, would realign epistemology, cosmology, and theology. Looking at the moons of Jupiter would not only provide the evidence to support a Copernican view of the universe but would also require a new hermeneutics to save the authority of the Christian scripture. No longer could we depend upon Joshua as a foundation for cosmology, nor our ordinary unaided sense experiences as a source of knowledge. It is correct so say that a new age of science was born in 1616.
The conflict was between ways of knowing. The Council of Trent stated:
In matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian Doctrine, no one, relying on his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to the sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, has held and does hold, or even contrary to the unanimous agreement of the fathers.
Galileo on the other hand looked at the moon and at the moons of Jupiter and saw that Copernicus was right to say that the earth moved and moved around the sun. Look to the sky not to scripture. Sensing the deep conflict between scripture and sense experience, Galileo, the Mathematician and Philosopher to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, wrote "to protect the Church from itself." He saw that it was going to be difficult to align interpretation of scripture to empirical evidence.
There are many things to like about Heilbron's book. The first is the title: GALILEO. No colon. No long subtitle. No conjunction. Just the proper name -- announcing that this book is about the man, Galileo. And indeed it is. Heilbron, one of the most distinguished scholars of the scientific revolution, gives us a complete human subject: Galileo as scientist, yes; but also as poet, bon vivant, mathematician, friend, musician, critic, and finally outspoken and reckless defender of his discoveries against his critics. Most academic reviewers agree that the book will become "the standard, comprehensive biography". Heilbron places Galileo firmly in 17th century at the time of a challenge to the traditional Christian and Greek views of cosmology. The origin of this challenge is commonly ascribed to the views of a Polish monk, Copernicus, who speculated that one way of understanding the universe might be to put the sun at the centre with the planets revolving around it in circular orbits. In making this radically different theoretical speculation (which some Greek thinkers had also entertained), Copernicus was not intending to break with tradition, and his ideas were in many places (including the Papacy) acknowledged as interesting hypotheses. Galileo came to support Copernicus and to give us what we look back on now as the beginning of the scientific revolution. "Science" the OED tells us:
Science . . . 1. The state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied; also, knowledge (more or less extensive) as a personal attribute . . . . 2. Knowledge acquired by study; acquaintance with or mastery of any department of learning, late ME. b. Trained skill. . . . 3. A particular branch of knowledge or study; a recognized department of learning: often opp. to art. . . . b. A craft, trade or occupation requiring trained skill. -1600. 4. A branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods of the discovery of new truth within its own domain. 1725. 5. The kind of knowledge or intellectual activity of which the 'sciences' are examples. In early use, with ref. To sense 3: What is taught in the Schools, or may be learned by study. In mod use chiefly: The sciences (in sense 4) as dist from other departments of learning; scientific doctrine or investigation, late ME. B. In mod use, often = 'Natural and Physical Science. Also attrib. as in s.-master, -teaching, etc. 1867. . . . (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary)
In that historical definition we can see how the term has changed from any knowledge acquired by study to our insistence today that science is a specific way of knowing that requires in its methodology a falsifiable hypothesis, an empirical test, and an observable outcome. Many of the discoveries that extending our senses allowed (telescopes, microscopes) cast doubt on the Truths of theology. It is interesting that Galileo's first known public lectures "defended the traditional geography of the Inferno before its guardian, the Academia Fiorentina." He employed mathematics to outline what the model of Dante's Inferno would be like. Later in his three seminal works, the Messenger, the Dialogue, and the Discourse, Galileo would raise the earth to the heavens and erase the ancient distinction between the celestial and terrestrial realms. As Heilbron says, "his subject may have been the universe, but his audience was a few dozen highly-place Italians whose good opinion he prized."
The eight chapters of Galileo present a chronological narrative from Galileo's upbringing and education in Florence, to his teaching and writing and to the dramatic clash with the Inquisitors and the pope. (Heilbron is certain that Galileo did not utter the words "it still moves" when found guilty of heresy) All of this is enhanced by some color pictures of the main characters and by some 140 pages of supporting information including a glossary of names (most useful), notes, and an index. A final chapter "End Games" concludes "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, and make him a saint?" (365)
© 2011 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.