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Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Mystery of Galileo

Much of the following is due to a fascinating essay at The Renaissance Mathematicus entitled Galileo’s great bluff and part of the reason why Kuhn is wrong

An abiding puzzle for many is: why were the physicists and astronomers opposed to Galileo's Copernicanism?  Most of his supporters were "Renaissance men," i.e., artists and men of letters who took a dilettante's interest in science.  There were some physicists who famously refused to look through the newfangled telescope.  This while the Jesuits were making significant telescopic investigations of their own; and were in fact teaching the Copernican calculation methods at the Roman College. 

Much of the confusion, imho, comes from looking at history backwards instead of forwards.  Backwards, meaning looking from the present into the past, and so looking with foreknowledge of what came after and often with the unexamined assumptions of the Late Modern Ages.  But one achieves a better understanding by looking at history from its own past, and not allowing knowledge of next year to affect the view of this year.

Continued here


  1. What really surprises me about the entire Galileo affair is that the question "Who didn't believe Galileo?" popularly gets answers of: "The Church. Priests. Philosophers. Ignorant people. People who hated science." etc.

    The answer of "Scientists, including other astronomers. Physicists. Mathematicians." almost never seems to come up.

    It's as if people think scientists are incapable of making mistakes, of having motivations that conflict with their profession, or of being even partly responsible for a wrong. It happens again and again: Scientists developed nuclear reactors, but politicians developed nuclear bombs. Scientists make power plants, but power companies make pollution. (Naturally, all these depend on if the former item in question is viewed as good, and the latter bad.)

    I think there's some comparison with how some people approach the atheism/religion question. Religion is responsible for war, but humanistic concern divorced from religion is what is responsible for religious charities.

  2. Ja doch. There were churchmen on all sides of the astronomical argument. They were Renaissance Men, after all.

    I notice a lot of folks seem to characterize individuals by the box they put them in; and then act as if the box had real existence. So, they have a stereotype of Science! or Religion! or The 17th Century! or Italians! or whatever; and this stereotype tells them how the real people must have behaved.

    See item 4 here:

  3. When we look around today we see it's common for religious authorities to make statements on scientific questions they are not experts on. (This has occurred on both sides of the global-warming debate.) I find it hard to believe this started yesterday.

  4. But far more common for scientists to comment on metaphysical matters in which they have no expertise. Some of them make a career of it.

  5. The commenters at Live Journal wonder who the figures are in the frontispiece. I think that the female covered with stars is Urania, the muse of astronomy. I think the male covered with eyes is Argus Panoptes, the famous guardian of Io, at least some of whose eyes were awake at any given time, who represents the unsleeping astronomer. I note that he is holding a telescope pointed straight up, at the sun, held by a putto. Nearby putti hold orbs with planetary symbols attached, Mercury, Venus (with a phase!), Mars. Across the way, the putti hold the moon, Jupiter (with four orbits around it!), Saturn, (with handles!). Above the hand is the tetragrammaton with fingers labeled number, measure, and weight. An excellent illustration, with deep symbolism all around.


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