Galileo: A Very Short Introduction by Stillman Drake


[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Galileo VSIBlackwells in Oxford has done some­thing which is either very good or very evil. They’ve put up a wall of Very Short Introductions, along with a 3 for 2 offer. They’re handy for some­thing to read on the train and con­sid­er­ably more sub­stan­tial and dur­able than a magazine which I can skim through in a half hour. I can forsee me spend­ing a lot of money. I’ve made an effort to limit myself to just three a week, so this week I bought Ancient Egyptian Myth, Russell and Galileo.

Galileo: A Very Short Introduction, isn’t a new book as such but an older book re-titled for the Very Short Introduction series. I tend to me more wary of these titles. Roman Britain was good for its time, but its time was 1984 and that VSI is a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment. This book by Stillman Drake, who I hadn’t heard of, was ori­gin­ally pub­lished in 1996 and hasn’t dated as far as I can tell. Given that I didn’t recog­nise the name of one of the major schol­ars on a pivotal event in the History of Science you should be able to work out I’m not exactly a reli­able source as to how dated it is.

Like the best VSIs, rather than present everything about a topic ever in a few words, it con­cen­trates on a very spe­cific focus. For this book the aim is to cla­rify why Galileo was brought to trial. Everyhting else he did — observing Jupiter’s moons, which gets little space in the book, or his the­ory of Relativity gets men­tioned, but only as far as it advances the main point. This cent­ral point is fas­cin­at­ing. For Drake Galileo’s trial was not about Science versus Religion, but rather Science versus Philosophy. Drake paints a por­trait of a devout Catholic who was not at odds with the church, but with Aristotle.

There’s a men­tion of ‘ancient sci­ence’ in the tag line at the top of this page. I’m not entirely happy about that because I’m not con­vinced there was such a thing, really, as Ancient Science. There are ele­ments of know­ledge in the past which look like they’re sci­entific, but they’re embed­ded in a very dif­fer­ent way of think­ing. For ancient philo­soph­ers reason was the key to know­ledge rather than exper­i­ence. This causes a prob­lem if you work out a way to quantify experience.

Galileo’s achieve­ment was in doing this, so he could meas­ure the period of a pen­du­lum or, more fam­ously, observe the fall of weights. According to Aristotle heavy things fell faster than light things. Galileo showed that this was true, but by noth­ing like the amount Aristotlean phys­ics pre­dicted and the dif­fer­ence could be explained by exper­i­mental error.

At the same time as he was annoy­ing philo­soph­ers, he also star­ted to annoy some sci­ent­ists in the church. Drake shows how Galileo claimed pre­ced­ence for the dis­cov­ery sun­spots over Father Christopher Scheiner who had sent him work on the topic. Eventually when prom­in­ent philo­soph­ers decided to move against Galileo they had allies in the church. Galileo had expec­ted to the church to remain neut­ral on issues that could be settled without faith. However the com­bin­a­tion of per­son­al­ity clashes, arcane pro­ced­ure and the need for the Roman Inquisition to avoid los­ing face led to Galileo’s house arrest.

What is inter­est­ing about the book is the way that it puts per­son­al­it­ies in a his­tor­ical con­text. How much his­tory is affected by the actions of indi­vidu­als? In this case, if Galileo had died as a child of plague, then were Science and Religion irre­voc­ably on a col­li­sion course? Would we be talk­ing about someone else defy­ing the church? Drake leaves open the pos­sib­il­ity that this was also an issue of the people involved. Paradoxically if the church had lim­ited itself to say­ing how to go to heaven, rather than how the heav­ens go, there may have been no need to decide between sci­ence and reli­gion as a source of truth.

If you are very much a fol­lower of the History of Science then this book will tell you littl eyou didn’t already know, and its brief nature will leave you want­ing more facts, dis­cus­sion and ref­er­ences to expand on Drake’s hypo­thesis. If on the other hand you want some­thing that will chal­lenge pre­con­cep­tions about the inev­it­able clash of epi­stem­o­lo­gies then this book is an enter­tain­ing and well-written diversion.