[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]
Blackwells 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.