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.

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites


UNESCO has added some more names to their list of world her­it­age sites. I seem to have a dif­fer­ent list to the one their web­site has, so I’ll go with theirs. Interesting sites on the list include.

Finally and most import­antly Tequila is now lis­ted as a world treas­ure. “It reflects both the fusion of pre-Hispanic tra­di­tions of fer­ment­ing mes­cal juice with the European dis­til­la­tion pro­cesses and of local tech­no­lo­gies and those impor­ted from Europe and the U.S.A.


Sun Symbolism and Cosmology in “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment” by Valerie Shrimplin


[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Valerie Shrimplin’s Sun Symbolism and Cosmology in “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment” is a dif­fi­cult book to write about. I like it, but it tackles such a var­ied range of sources that it raises a lot of intriguing ques­tions. Certainly more than can be covered in one blog post so, for now, I’ll leave them for a later post. For now I’ll start from the pop­u­lar, if incor­rect, view of the arrival of Copernicanism.

Sometime in the 16th cen­tury Nicolaus Copernicus dis­covered that con­trary to the teach­ings of the church, the Earth went round the Sun. Fearing con­dem­na­tion by the Church he refused to pub­lish his the­ory until his death. The next day Galileo buys a copy of the book and is inspired to dis­cover Jupiter’s moons with a tele­scope. This proves Copernicus’s the­ory and he tells the world about it. In the Vatican all hell breaks loose, fig­ur­at­ively speak­ing. The Inquistion is sent to deal with Galileo, much to his sur­prise, and so the church becomes an army of dark­ness in the War for Enlightenment.

The above is non­sense, but per­haps a fair ste­reo­type of the Science vs. Religion battle that con­tin­ues to this day. So what would it mean if there was a depic­tion of a helio­centric uni­verse in the Sistene chapel dat­ing from the six­teenth cen­tury in full view of everyone?

The Last Judgement
The Last Judgement: Image from Wikipedia.

In the midst of all assuredly dwells the Sun. For in this most beau­ti­ful who would place this luminary in any other or bet­ter pos­i­tion from which he can illu­min­ate the whole at once? Indeed, some rightly call Him the Light of the World, oth­ers, the Mind or ruler of the Universe: Trismegistus names him the vis­ible God, Sophocles’ Electra calls him the all-seeing. So indeed the Sun remains, as if in his kingly domin­ion, gov­ern­ing the fam­ily of Heavenly bod­ies which circles around him.

Shrimplin begins her book with this quote which could be read as a descrip­tion of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. It’s not. It’s from De revolu­tionibus orbium coe­les­tium. Ok, so Michelangelo could have been inspired by Copernicus. The prob­lem is that Michelangelo fin­ished his paint­ing in 1541 and De Revolutionibus was not pub­lished until 1543.
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More OA


Chuck Jones has poin­ted me to ABZU as a source of open-access mater­ial. It’s been hugely use­ful / dis­tract­ing already and I have another paper I need to write up on Greek fest­ivals now. It’s wonderful.

…but I’m also hav­ing a very strange day with the journ­als. It seems the February 2005 edi­tion of the Journal of Social Archaeology is open today. I men­tion it as it has the paper The cul­tural land­scape of inter­plan­et­ary space by Alice Gorman avail­able for free. It’s an inter­est­ing take on the space race, nation­al­ism and archaeology.

There’s a good vari­ety of top­ics in the issue, so grab it while you can get it.

Suicide is ageless


Base image: Suicide © iStock​Photo​.com.

A press release from the Royal Society of Psychiatrists. Reproduced because I’ve only seen snip­pets of it the Scottish press.

“Death is by my sight today, like a well trod­den way…
Death is by my sight today, like the long­ing of a man
to see home…
I am laden with misery…”

Analysis of an ancient Egyptian poem by a psy­chi­at­rist and an Egyptologist shows that it describes the psy­cho­path­o­logy of sui­cide with great accuracy.

Dispute over Suicide was a poem writ­ten by an unnamed Egyptian writer between 2000 and 1740 BC on papyrus in hieroglyphics.

The writer is known as ‘The Eloquent Peasant’, and was com­mis­sioned by King Meri-ka-re to write a poem in order to dis­suade people from com­mit­ting sui­cide.
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Why Open Access is important


[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

While wait­ing for the pho­to­copier on Wednesday I picked up Garrett Fagan’s art­icle on pseudoar­chae­ology in Archaeology Magazine from a couple of years back. I’ve read with interest Cornelius Holtorf’s paper on Alternative Archaeologies (free ver­sion is alas off­line, but you can read dis­cus­sion about the paper at Graham Hancock’s site) and Katherine Reese’s book chapter from the per­spect­ive of a former believer. There’s a range of views, but one factor I think they’d all agree on is that there is a need to make inform­a­tion avail­able. Reese’s own response was to set up the In the Hall of Ma’at web­site, which Archaeology repor­ted.

I think the Bosnian Pyramid saga is an excel­lent example of what hap­pens when inform­a­tion isn’t access­ible. Here’s a quote from Osmanagic.

The civil­iz­a­tions did not migrate from Middle and West Europe, but from here toward them.

He is right.

On pyr­am­ids, ali­ens and whether experts he named com­ing to his site had been sent by Zahi Hawass or even been to Bosnia, he’s wrong, but the claim that places like Bosnia are hugely import­ant to European pre­his­tory is abso­lutely right. This is why many archae­olo­gists are hor­ri­fied that he’s dig­ging the site and the way he’s doing it. The idea that south-eastern Europe was the cul­tural and tech­no­lo­gical engine of Europe really isn’t dis­puted. It’s writ­ten in the land­scape at places like Karanovo below.

Tell at Karanovo. Photo by kind per­mis­sion of Raluca.

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Doctor Who 2006


Doctor Who 2006 is over. If this had been the first series of the relaunch then people would be ecstatic about the series. But we’ve had Christopher Eccleston already. This series has been mixed.

There’s been more miss­able epis­odes. Love and Monsters fea­tured a mon­ster cre­ated by an eight year old in a com­pet­i­tion, and was a pretty good demon­stra­tion of why TV pro­du­cers rarely ask eight year olds to design vil­lains. The opener New Earth isn’t as bad, but epis­odes intro­du­cing new char­ac­ters tend to be poor in plot and given the rel­at­ive lack of Doctor in The Christmas Invasion, New Earth was partly about intro­du­cing the new Doctor.

However, when it went right it went bril­liantly. The pre-series hype was all about the Cybermen, but there were other bet­ter epis­odes. The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit worked both in the set-up and finale. School Reunion, with Sarah-Jane and K9 could have been dire, but actu­ally worked both in char­ac­ter and plot. My favour­ite epis­ode of the series though was The Girl in the Fireplace. Saying why is dif­fi­cult. The epis­ode is like Gorgonzola, being both cheesy and full of holes, but the chem­istry between the Doctor and Reinette makes it enchanting.

The sea­son finale also beats last year’s fin­ish. Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways was good and with the death of major char­ac­ters looked like an impossible situ­ation. That was excit­ing until it turned out it really was impossible and the end­ing required a magic wand to fix everything. Army of Ghosts / Doomsday starts at least as well, but the end­ing is so much better.

The cast has gen­er­ally improved. David Tennant wouldn’t have been my choice for Doctor, I’d have gone with Richard E. Grant, but he is usu­ally good in the role. He cer­tainly seems to enjoy it. Mickey Smith became a more inter­est­ing char­ac­ter rather than spare part and Noël Clarke did a good job mak­ing the growth con­vin­cing. Billie Piper improved as Rose. I was also pleased to not see Slitheen this time, but I wouldn’t rule them out from mak­ing a return next year.

When it was bad 2006 was worse than 2005, but on the whole the series was bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous series. Parts of it, like the domestic life of Rose, integ­rated bet­ter with the storylines and added to them. It looks like the Christmas spe­cial will be a bit of a breather from all that, so it’ll be inter­est­ing to see how they tackle the 2007 series.

And then there’s Torchwood com­ing this autumn.