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:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…