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.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Andrew May


Popular posts from this blog

The Spirit of Mathematics - David Acheson ****

The subtitle of this slim book is 'algebra and all that', presumably in reference to David Acheson's impressively entertaining general mathematics title, 1089 and all that (itself, a reference to 1066 and all that ). What Acheson managed with that book was almost inconceivable - an educational book about maths that was genuinely fun to read. Clearly, the aim here is to take the same approach with a specific focus on algebra, though the book does stray into geometry and one or two other fields occasionally. And the result is again a delight. It feels a little like an old children's book for adults, with a deliberately old-fashioned style, delighting, for example, in giving examples from ancient textbooks. Acheson makes use of illustrations, cartoons, and occasional two page spreads such as 'Playing with infinity' to break up the material, but this is definitely for an older teen/adult audience. The underlying message is that the book is attempting to 'captur

The Man from the Future - Ananyo Bhattacharya *****

There are very few individuals who have made such wide contributions to mathematical and scientific topics as did John von Neumann. In this splendid scientific biography, Ananyo Bhattacharya introduces to many for the first time both von Neumann's work and life. It's easy to get the balance between the life and the science wrong with this kind of biography - Bhattacharya keeps it just right, filling in all the biographical details we need, without falling into the trap of giving us endless boring detail of the von Neumann family's background. Similarly, with a couple of small exceptions I'll mention later, the description of his work is at a level that remains approachable with a bit of effort from the reader, yet we are given enough information to see just how important and novel von Neumann's contribution was. The significantly more famous Richard Feynman is probably the only twentieth century scientist I can think of with the breadth of interests and originality

The One - Heinrich Päs ****

At first glance this book has all the hallmarks of an attempt to tie quantum woo into ancient philosophical and religious beliefs, where some vague resemblance between an ancient observation about, say, 'the oneness of everything' and some aspect of quantum physics is given as evidence of the great wisdom of the ancients. In practice, if you make vague enough statements they can be said to prefigure anything - and have no connection to modern science. Thankfully, though, that's not what much of Heinrich Päs's book is about. What Päs sets out to show is that the reason that quantum physics can seem strange, if not downright weird, is that we are looking at things from the wrong direction. Quantum physics is hugely successful at practical stuff - predicting what will happen to enable successful design of, for example, electronics, but doesn't have a big picture: there is no satisfactory explanation of what's going on 'under the hood'. Päs suggests this is