Sunday, 14 June 2009

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.
Review by Brian Clegg

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