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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…