February 6th, 2013
Adam Gopnik’s essay in The New Yorker, “Moon Man. What Galileo Saw,” swings between unfortunate mischaracterizations and reasonable statements.
The founder of modern science had to wait three hundred years, but when he got his play it was a good one: Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo,” which is the most Shakespearean of modern history plays, the most vivid and densely ambivalent.
The myth that, once condemned, he muttered under his breath, about the earth, “But still, it moves,” provides small comfort for the persecuted, and is not one that Brecht adopted.
To be sure, Gopnik grounds his essay in some scholarship. He refers to John Heilbron’s biography, Galileo, and echoes Samuel Edgerton claims about perspective and the rise of modern science. He also refers to Thomas Mayer’s two recent books (Mayer attracted some attention schooling Governor Rick Perry on his understanding of Galileo). Yet Gopnik ignores considerable recent work on Galileo—noted by Henry Cowles—and dismisses both Mayer’s work and historical scholarship more broadly (in language reminiscent of Roger Highfield’s):
Mayer believes that had Galileo been less pugnacious things would have worked out better for science; yet his argument is basically one of those “If you put it in context, threatening people with hideous torture in order to get them to shut up about their ideas was just one of the ways they did things then” efforts, much loved by contemporary historians.
It’s all too easy to criticize Gopnik’s essay, but maybe there’s another way to look at Gopnik’s piece. What was Gopnik trying to accomplish in writing his essay? Why did he bother? Why did The New Yorker publish this essay? What is Gopnik’s and The New Yorker’s audience looking for in such an article? Maybe we should try to avoid our reflex to criticize and, instead, adopt Lynn Nyhart’s suggestion: “Instead of noticing (and complaining about) science writers who take our best material and get it not-quite right, we could sometimes choose–and then learn–to write the way they do.”
That’s not to say we should forgive Gopnik his missteps, mischaracterizations, misleading over simplifications, misinformation, and mis-whatever-the-error, but to acknowledge that he’s doing something we are not. We can retreat into our safe haven of esoteric and expert knowledge, from which vantage point we can revel in pointing out Gopnik’s errors, or we can risk adapting our knowledge for a wider audience. We can try to see what Gopnik accomplished, how his essay on Galileo was relevant, and why readers of The New Yorker will read and enjoy it. Maybe we can learn how to contribute to the broader discussion. And I think we should contribute to that discussion. As Nyhart wrote last January: “We know this stuff. But we don’t own it.” Perhaps, if we try, as Nyhart urged again this January, historians of science can make a difference in the world instead of relegating ourselves to the disgruntled margins.