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Galileo: Watcher of the Skies – David Wootton ***

There have been a lot of biographies of Galileo. A LOT. To find this book in Amazon I had to scroll through over a page full of other titles. So David Wootton had to be able to put a different spin on things in some way – and I’m pleased to say he has. This is particularly surprising when you consider what limited material we have to investigate Galileo’s life outside of the big events like his trial.
Compared with many of the other titles, this is a weighty and serious academic biography. As such it can occasionally be rather dry reading, but repays the reader in the details of context that it gives. I’d say that Wootton’s real plus over the competition is his deep feel for the social and political times, so we get a much richer understanding of the interpersonal connections of Galileo and the nuances of the arguments between philosophers, proto-scientists and theologians.
One small example that particularly impressed me – apparently the concept of a ‘fact’ really didn’t exist until around this time, and it’s a term that Galileo explicitly uses (as he also does ‘science’). In particular, in his analysis of the disputes over Copernicanism and Galileo’s contribution, Wootton’s is by far the best Galileo book of the many that I have read.
If I have any concerns, I think they derive from the fact that the writer is a historian, rather than a scientist. I suspect for this reason, he tends to overplay the importance of Galileo’s support for the Copernican model and downplays his contributions to physics, where he was much more original and his work made much of a long-term difference. Galileo’s great book on Two New Sciences, which covers much on matter and motion is skimmed over in a short chapter. My other concern is that this grounding in history rather than science means that the writer is more interested in having a fresh interpretation of some part of Galileo’s history than he is of putting the science into context.
This is particularly obvious when it comes to Galileo’s religious beliefs, where Wootton draws some very speculative conclusions from very little evidence.
All in all, not a book to read for an entertaining tour of Galileo’s life and work, but an essential if you really want to get an understanding of the mind of Galileo, why he did what he did and what the context of his work was.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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