Skip to main content

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on the size and shape of Hell, as described in Dante’s Inferno – then, as now, considered the pinnacle of Italian poetry. An early self-portrait by the artist Rubens shows him in a group with Galileo and some other friends – years before either of them became famous.

More contentiously, one 20th century Italian writer referred to Galileo as ‘the greatest writer of Italian literature’, while another ‘puts him on the same level as Dante’. It’s not a topic I’m qualified to comment on, but I suspect both statements are exaggerations. Nevertheless, Galileo was one of the first people to write about science for a wide audience – beyond other specialists in the field – and the first to be really successful at it. That’s how he became, in Greco’s words, ‘a real superstar, probably the first big star of the modern age’. Galileo’s first bestseller, Sidereus Nuncius, may be the only book to present brand new, revolutionary scientific discoveries in anything approaching ‘literary’ form. His later Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is arguably not a scientific treatise at all, but a literary masterpiece that just happens to be about science (in the same way that Dante’s Inferno happens to be about 14th century Italian politics).

I really enjoyed this book – not only for what’s in it, but for what isn’t in it. I was worried it would be one of those modern ‘liberal arts’ books, full of textual deconstruction and anachronistic reinterpretation – but it’s nothing like that. It’s a good old-fashioned biography with plenty of action and very little commentary and analysis. I wish I could give it five stars – and I would have done, if an experienced English-speaking copy editor had given it the attention it deserves. Sadly that wasn’t the case, and the result is a book that’s less fun to read than it ought to be.

The book is translated from the Italian, so some deviation from idiomatic English is excusable. But there are too many things a copy editor should have caught. Proper names and technical terms aren’t rendered the way they usually are in English (e.g. Genève for Geneva, Euclides for Euclid, contrapunct for counterpoint, parallaxis for parallax). ‘Discorso sul’, in the title of works by Galileo and others, is translated as ‘speech about’ rather than ‘discourse on’. There are other odd translations too – I particularly liked the frequent use of ‘sensuous’ in place of ‘sensory’. These are all little annoyances that (hopefully) become less noticeable as the reader gets drawn into the book, but they’re enough to drop it from five stars to four.


Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…