Home > History & Philosophy > Putting Galileo in his place

Putting Galileo in his place

June 2, 2010

Thony Christie:

The image of Galileo Galilei has been inflated like a dirigible airship that floats above the early modern period obscuring the efforts and achievements of all the other scientists, his shadow only being broken by the light of that other god of science Isaac Newton. Unfortunately this image is total bullshit and its propagation leads to a major distortion in our understanding of the historical development of science. In what follows I shall be pulling the plug, extracting the stopper, puncturing the balloon and letting the gas out so that one can begin to judge Galileo’s achievements from a sensible standpoint.

More here.

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  1. Nick (Matzke)
    June 2, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Um, I read it and disagree. Starry Messenger and Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina each by themselves are monumental advances in human thought. And this is only a small portion of what Galileo did. Revisionism can be necessary, but Christie gets carried away. The sole inventor of science? No. One hell of an amazing #@*@ing figure in the history of science? Heck yeah. He’s a slam dunk for one of the top five scientific figures of all time.

  2. J-Dog
    June 3, 2010 at 7:14 am

    Agree, or disagree, it is still a Great Post, and IMHO, looking at historical figures through a different lens is always good to do. Thanks for the link.

  3. Michael Fugate
    June 3, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I like it as it tells us that science always has been a communal effort – not advancing solely through the efforts of a few geniuses. We love the “great man” view of history because it makes for an easy narrative, but things are never that simple.

  4. June 3, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Nick (Matzke) :

    Um, I read it and disagree. Starry Messenger and Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina each by themselves are monumental advances in human thought. And this is only a small portion of what Galileo did. Revisionism can be necessary, but Christie gets carried away. The sole inventor of science? No. One hell of an amazing #@*@ing figure in the history of science? Heck yeah. He’s a slam dunk for one of the top five scientific figures of all time.

    I think you might be overstating the effect of Starry Messenger and (particularly) Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina a fair deal. I don’t think any historian would describe them as “monumental advances”. The sort of observational work that Galileo did in the former was being done by others and describing the latter as “monumental” ignores how the argument presented is flawed in many ways. His later works are more properly seen as “monumental” (paying attention to what Thony writes though).

    As for being one of the “top five scientific figures of all time” – such a concept is meaningless. As Michael Fulgate correctly notes, “science always has been a communal effort – not advancing solely through the efforts of a few geniuses” and our obsession with ‘great men of science’ (Darwin included) has lead to some pretty lousy historical narratives. Scientists seem to still be largely wed to such narratives (perhaps because they aspire to being a ‘great man’) but historians and philosophers have eschewed them for some time now.

  5. June 3, 2010 at 10:05 am

    Nick, John has already given a very good reply to your comment which covers almost all that I had intended to say so I will just add some short comments. Before answering I quickly reread the Letter to Christina as I haven’t read it for a number of years and it is basically a tedious piece of theological logic chopping that says in 46 pages(in the Stllman Drake translation) what Bellarmino had already said concisely and clearly in one paragraph in the Foscarini Letter:

    Third, I say that, if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in passages of Scripture that appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.

    Also if Galileo is one of “the top five scientific figures of all time”, who are the other four and how do you justify leaving out the other two hundred (it’s probably even more but you get my point) who are equally or even better qualified?

  6. Nick (Matzke)
    June 3, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    I don’t know why, I guess I just have some sort of weird constitutional aversion to the kind of extreme-high-indignation, low-payoff hairsplitting that sometimes occurs in these academic discussions. I fight a similar battle with certain philosophers of science who get all tied in knots over “the demarcation question” and get mad if anyone dares to sin against Larry Laudan and use the word “pseudoscience.” It’s a gimme a break, look at the big picture for Chrissakes sort of feeling.

    Others in the top 5? This is only about as important as discussions people have about ranking the “best presidents” or “top Britons”, but I think Darwin, Newton, and Einstein are in there for sure. In each case, the criterion isn’t being the “most qualified” or being right about everything, or being a single solitary genius working in isolation — none of them were any of those. I think the most important factors are things like (a) being a key participant in effecting a massive change in how we, society, and everyone view the natural world, (b) making not just one remarkable discovery or breakthrough but a bunch of them, (c) being a key participant in synthesizing a new relationship between a scientific field and the larger body of human thought. E.g. Galileo’s letter to Christina might not have been wholly unique, but is an eerily modern document when read today, and has all kinds of lessons for modern tension still going on about science and religion (and yes, I know the “war between science & religion” is substantially a historical myth, etc., although I wonder how many centuries of creationism battles it will take before the myth becomes a more accurate description of reality).

    I would say Galileo fits all of these better than most, although there are of course a nearly infinite number of people who have been important in some way, and there is a huge sliding scale, yadda yadda. So I would conclude by saying: contextualize and revise all you like, that’s great stuff. Hero-worship should be corrected. But there really is such a thing as a scientific hero, human and flawed though they are, and Galileo is basically the archetype for it. Figures like Galileo really are remarkable and amazing, and it’s pointless to deny it.

    Apologies if I appear to be the curmudgeonly defender of the status quo…but sometimes that’s kind of my thing.

    Cheers,
    Nick

  7. June 3, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Nick,

    I think the issue is that the status quo among historians and that among scientists & the public regarding these issues are different. Thony is not really “revising” anything, merely presenting in a public forum what historians (with perhaps a few exceptions) have been saying for a while now. While I won’t be so bold as to claim that the historians are necessarily correct on the issue, I think they are giving a more nuanced view that is more likely to be correct than the simplistic view of Galileo as genius-martyr-hero that is prevalent among scientists and the public.

    As a (perhaps) joking aside: the thing about the philosophers arguing about demarcation and pseudoscience is that if there was a clear answer then the philosophers would have one less thing to argue about. There would be some resistance to that 🙂

  8. June 3, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    I’ll also note that, in the past, I have written – both here and professionally – about creationist simplifications of history. I would be inconsistent if I gave scientists a free-pass to engage in such simplifications 😉

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