2000-05-14: Galileo’s Daughter

Galileo’s Daughter

A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (1999)

by Dava Sobel (1947-)

Dava Sobel work is subtitled “A Historical Memoir”. Like her book, Longitude, it is about people rather than events, but also about the ideas that her subjects deal with. In the case of Galileo, the ideas are far-reaching, and still reverberate. (It was only in 1992 that Pope John Paul II acknowledged on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church the errors it made in Galileo’s case.)

This book is in demand at the Anne Arundel Public Library, and I might not get to finish it (or this report) before it must be returned. Therefore I am recording a few quotations as I go along.

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Galileo’s father, Vincenzio, was a musician, who studied and wrote about the theory of music in his time. Significantly for illustrating the father’s influence on the son’s attitudes, his work challenged accepted theory, and he wrote, “It appears to me that they who in proof of any assertion rely simply on the weight of authority, without adducing any argument in support of it, act very absurdly. I, on the contrary, wish to be allowed freely to question and freely to answer you without any sort of adulation, as well becomes those who are in search of truth.” Of course, the consequences of challenging musical authority were less severe than those of challenging the authority of the Church.

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Later, Galileo wrote (in Italian), “I wrote in the colloquial tongue because I must have everyone able to read it. I am induced to do this by seeing how young men are sent through the universities at random to be made physicians, philosophers, and so on; thus many of them are committed to professions for which they are unsuited, while other men who would be fitted for these are taken up by family cares and other occupations remote from literature. . . . Now I want them to see that just as nature has given to them, as well as to philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has also given them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them.”

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Galileo on the the stubbornness of philosophers who clung to Aristotle’s views despite the new perspective provided by the telescope: “They wish never to raise their eyes from those pages–as if this great book of the universe had been written to be read by nobody but Aristotle, and his eyes had been destined to see for all posterity.”

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Galileo had to contend with many who argued from faith and authority, and often badly: “I cannot but be astonished that [someone] should persist in trying to prove by means of witnesses something that I may see for myself at any time by means of experiment. Witnesses are examined in doubtful matters which are past and transient, not in those which are actual and present. A judge must seek by means of witnesses to determine whether Pietro injured Giovanni last night, but not whether Giovanni was injured, since the judge can see that for himself. But even in conclusions which can be known only by reasoning, I say that the testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling I should agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing and not like hauling, and a single Barbary steed can outrun a hundred dray horses.”

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Writing of experimental science, Galileo said, “There wil be opened a gateway and a road to a large and excellent science, into which minds more piercing than mine shall penetrate to recesses still deeper.”

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In 1971, Apollo 15 commander David R. Scott dropped a feather and a hammer on the lunar surface; when they fell together he said, “This proves that Mr. Galileo was correct.”

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In 1992, Pope John Paul II publicly endorsed Galileo’s philosophy, noting how “intelligibility, attested to by the marvelous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial thought imprinted on all things.”

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Einstein noted, “Propositions arrived at purely by logical means are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics–indeed of modern science altogether.”

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To me the greatness of Galileo was as the first person in the Western tradition to advocate the primary value of observation and experiment over received wisdom.

I notice that I have not quoted any of Suor Maria Celeste’s letters. However, Sobel’s book makes excellent use of them, and presents an excellent story. Of course, I can’t judge how well it is appreciated by those who don’t already appreciate science, but I found it very interesting. Especially in the last part, it was hard to put down, right to the last page.

There is an extensive timeline of events relating to Galileo’s life and influence, from 1543 (Copernicus’s De revolutionibus and Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body) to 1999 (the Galileo spacecraft’s successful mission to the Galilean satellites of Jupiter).

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