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 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…