Skip to main content

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.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Bodyology - Mosaic Science ****

It's a good sign when you pick up a book intending to read one chapter and end up reading three. It's very moreish. This is because it's made up of short, self-contained articles, originally published on a website. Often an edited collection of articles by different authors suggests a boring read, but here the articles are good pieces of journalism with plenty to interest the reader.

The topics are all vaguely human body related, but thankfully not all medical (not my favourite subject) - so, for example, as well as stories of a person cured of Lyme disease by bee stings or a piece on miscarriages we get topics like the effects on the body of being struck by lightning or falling from a high place. Even some more explicitly health-related matters, such as the impact of losing your sense of smell, were engaging enough to get me past my medical squeamishness.

The only reason I can't give the collection five stars is because of one aspect of the writing style that runs throu…