Skip to main content

The Earth Moves – Dan Hofstadter ***

There’s a question that has to be asked early on in a book on Galileo – and it’s a question that’s so obvious that the author explicitly asks it himself. ‘There are many books about Galileo,’ says Dan Hofstadter, ‘so the reader is entitled to ask how this one differs from any others that he or she might come across.’ It’s so true. Galileo is a well-ploughed furrow. There are two aspects that Hofstadter picks out in particular – the way Galileo improved on the telescope, making it significantly better than the devices already around when he made his first – and on some of the detail of his trial for upholding the Copernican ideas, detail that is rarely produced in most popular accounts of Galileo’s life.
On the whole, Hofstadter does what he sets out to do. His observations on Galileo’s, erm, observations make it clear why what Galileo did was different to the work of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. And there is much fascinating detail in the section on the trial. I hadn’t realized that Galileo very nearly got off with a pat on the head and an admonition to go away and be a good boy. There was a strong move to allow some quick plea bargaining, cutting short the trial and enabling Galileo to walk away free, having acknowledged and repented his alleged errors. However for whatever reason – Hofstadter suggests it might have been Jesuits that Galileo had wound up, or the pope in a fit of pique – this suggestion, accepted by a fair number of those making the inquiry into Galileo, was not carried through and the trial went ahead with the eventual life sentence ensuing.
On the whole, Hofstadter’s style makes for reasonably easy reading, and it’s quite a compact book, but there was a significant feeling of padding in places. It seemed that some of the statements about Galileo – the fact the trial wasn’t really a trial, and wasn’t really about Copernican science but more about compliance and control, for instance – were said over and over again until they became a little monotonous. It’s not Hofstadter’s fault but I also got a little confused by the many cardinals and others involved – you could see a sentence with three or four different names in it, and it was easy to lose track of the cast, not helped by Hofstadter’s reluctance to call the pope Urban, but instead calling him by his surname Barberini – confusing as there were at least two other Barberinis involved.
Without doubt this usefully adds to the information available on Galileo for the general reader, so the question that opens this review (and the book) can be satisfied. However, I suspect that only those with a particular interest in Galileo, the development of astronomy or the relationship between science and religion would recommended to add this to their shelves.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you   
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…