Tag: Galileo

Galileo’s Courtesan

In a conversation recently, a student commented something like, “At first I couldn’t recall the title of Biagioli’s book. All I could think of was Galileo Courtesan.”[1] His remark prompted me to wonder what would scholarship look like if written as mid–20th-century pulp fiction. Maybe something like this:

Galileo’s Courtesan is a book I wish had been written.

I would give anything to stumble across a book like this in some used bookstore. Does anybody know of trashy pulp fiction that centers on a significant person from the history of science? Anyone?


  1. While not an exact quotation, it’s close enough. I should add, this was (and still is) a smart student.  ↩

Science won’t prevail unless …

Science Will Prevail,” Anzar Abbas reassures readers in his recent op-ed. Although the Trump administration “wants to ignore facts and instead believe whatever makes it feel most comfortable,” he is confident that “no matter what an ignorant administration may throw at science and reason, it will prevail. It always has.” To make his case, Abbas surveys key episodes when “ignorance of science and reason” impeded science but ultimately lost out to reason, evidence, and scientific facts. Unfortunately, Abbas ignores facts and believes what makes him feel most comfortable, inviting the same criticism he levels at the Trump administration.[1]

At the heart of Abbas’s op-ed is a story about Copernicus fearing persecution by the Church for his heliocentric theory:

Copernicus knew the Church would not tolerate his work. He knew that he lived in a Europe that would never believe the Earth belonged anywhere but the center of the universe. He knew the persecution he would face if he ever tried to remove Earth from where the Church believed it to be.

We don’t talk as much about the ignorance of the Church anymore, though there was plenty. We don’t talk as much about the resistance that Copernicus faced.

Screenshot of Abbas’s op-ed.
Abbas hits all the major points in his version of Copernicus vs. the Church.

Scientists and science boosters believe this old chestnut because, well, it makes them feel comfortable.[2] But to believe and to traffic in this story requires that you ignore facts.

There is no evidence that Copernicus worried that the Church would condemn him and his work. There is, however, Copernicus’s dedication in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to no less a Church figure than the Pope, Pope Paul III. Copernicus credits other members of the Church for having urged him to publish his work: Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, and Tiedemann Giese, the Bishop of Chelmno.

Copernicus’s letter of dedication to Pope Paul III.
Copernicus’s dedication to Pope Paul III. Digital copies of the text are widely available, this particular copy is from the Library of Congress, Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De revolvtionibvs orbium coelestium, libri VI (1543), fol. iiv.

Copernicus did worry about resistance to his theory, as he mentions in the opening lines of his preface, but he doesn’t single out the Church. Instead, he worries about ignorant people who in referring to Scriptures will distort the sacred texts.[3] The Church found Copernicus’s so unremarkable that it didn’t take any official until 1616 when it placed De revolutionizes on the Index of Forbidden Books until it was corrected.[4]

This purported conflict between Copernicus and the Church is largely a fiction, fabricated by pro-science, anti-church polemicists in the 19th century and repeated in lightly edited form for the past 150 years. And even a quick review of historical scholarship will expose it as a fiction.[5]

Scientists’ cavalier disregard for facts, evidence, and reason outside of the sciences reflects their own “unrestrained, unreasonable and willful ignorance,” and makes it difficult to take their complaints seriously. I agree, Abbas, a 21st century scholar ignoring basic truths is appalling. Science might prevail one day, but only if scientists and their boosters stop ignoring facts.

Screenshot of Abbas’s erroneous claim that Galileo was imprisoned in the 16th century.
Galileo’s trial and sentence occurred in 1633, well into the 17th century, not in the 16th. Moreover, Galileo was never imprisoned. Although the initial sentence was imprisonment, it was promptly commuted to house arrest. Alas, Abbas displays “unreasonable and willful ignorance” of both when Galileo was tried and what his sentence was.

  1. To be clear, I am not defending the Trump administration. I am, rather, pointing out how people like Abbas undermine their own efforts by demonstrating an almost pathological disregard for facts outside the sciences and a dogmatic adherence to myths that make them feel good. We lose all moral authority if in calling out the Trump administration’s (and before that the Bush administration’s) transgressions we commit all those same sins.  ↩

  2. According to his LinkedIn account, Abbas is a PhD student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering “studying functional connectivity in the brain in the Keilholz MIND Lab.” He is also the president of Emory Scicomm, “a group of students who are passionate about communicating science to the public.” So he is both a scientist and a science booster.  ↩

  3. Andreas Osiander in writing his well known Ad lectorem might have worried about how people would react to the Copernicus’s book, but those are his own anxieties and concerns rather than Copernicus’s.  ↩

  4. Some Church astronomers presented serious and technical challenges to Copernicus’s theory. See, for example, Chris Graney’s excellent study of the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli: Setting Aside All Authority. Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo (Notre Dame Press, 2015).  ↩

  5. If going to the library and reading a very short introduction on Copernicus is too much effort, the wikipedia page has a section on the controversy, which offers a reasonable description.  ↩

Weekly Roundup: History of Science Videos & NSF Report

The History Channel Distorts History

A number of the videos at the History Channel’s “Enlightenment” page deal with the history of science—on Isaac Newton, the Scientific Revolution, and a series Beyond the Big Ban: Copernicus, Beyond the Big Ban: Galileo and Beyond the Big Ban: Newton. Some gesture to interesting points, e.g., the interaction between science and religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, but most repeat heroic tales and neat stories of discovery through flashes of brilliance. Unfortunately, the History Channel didn’t enlist the expertise of many historians and fewer historians of science (the eminent Owen Gingerich makes two cameo appearances). Scientists, however, are well represented. I wonder how different these videos would have been if they had consulted more scholars with expertise in the history of early modern science.

Newton the Genius

In Newton’s Apple: Science and the Value of a Good Story Ned Potter is right: telling a good story is more important, perhaps more important than being accurate. His comment about lists of great scientists underscores his point:

Search online for any list of history’s greatest scientists and you’ll find the same names: Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Louis Pasteur, and so on. The order may change, but the name on top will almost invariably be that of Isaac Newton.
We can argue over such lists — they’re mostly harmless fun — but we can agree that Newton earned his place there.

I don’t think such lists are “mostly harmless fun.” Such lists tell a good story and reinforce a particular image of science, one that misleads and distorts its history and development. They are built on the pillars of the lone genius waging war with the weapons of rationality, empiricism, and experiment to overcome church, benighted society, and ignorant political leaders. Potter’s own description of Newton conforms to this model. Newton alone, in his spare time, invented reflecting telescopes and calculus, and explained light and colors. Only as an aging genius, in his later years, Newton fiddled with alchemy and Biblical chronology.

He published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope, laid the foundations for calculus, brought us the understanding of light and color, and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.

Newton turns out not only to have been a genius in science but also in self promotion.

NSF, Astrology, and the Pig-Ignorant American Public

The release (or at least the summary of the release) of the latest NSF survey on attitudes about science and technology has prompted the standard handwringing and fretting. Of particular concern is the fact that 1 in 4 Americans Don’t Know Earth Orbits the Sun. Yes, Really, which echoes One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun. The Telegraph jumped on the bandwagon with One in four Americans ‘do not know the Earth circles the Sun’ and The Space Reporter sprinkled a little history onto its summary of broadcast soundbites and published factoids, Study finds nearly 25 percent of Americans don’t know the Earth orbits the sun.

Another predictable worry is the “More than half of US millennials think astrology is a science,” repeated in Science News and Slashdot and then with some added commentary (and the standard ambiguities and imprecisions in terms like “horoscopes” and “astrology”) at Mother Jones. Richard Landers worries about possible design flaws in the NSF’s study: NSF Report Flawed; Americans Do Not Believe Astrology is Scientific.[1]

All this anxiety is part of a more general claim that Americans struggle with science, respect scientists, survey finds.

The NSF report generating all this incredibly repetitive and generally uncritical “news” is the most recent Science & Engineering Indicators 2014 – (NSF), a biennial report that “highlights some major developments in international and U.S. science and engineering.” The part of the report that has attracted the most attention is chapter seven and the various Appendix Tables (astrology that most resilient of science’s hobgoblins enjoys its own table, Appendix table 7–13). What if we look at chapter seven of the NSF report a different way?

Sure, on average, respondents answered only 65% of the “factual” questions correctly, but that percentage has been steadily increasing, up from 59% in 1992 (according to ‎Appendix table 7–8).

Respondents were asked the following questions about science (“Don’t know” responses and refusals to respond were counted as incorrect):
Physical science—

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot — 84% got this right.
  2. The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future — 83% got this right.
  3. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? — 74% got this right.

    • 3a. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (Asked only if the respondent answered correctly that the Earth goes around the Sun.) — 55% got this right.
  4. All radioactivity is man-made — 72% got this right.
  5. Electrons are smaller than atoms — 53% got this right.
  6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves — 47% got this right.
  7. The Universe began with a huge explosion — 39% got this right.

Biological science—

  1. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl — 63% got this right.
  2. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria — 51% got this right.
  3. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals (a footnote indicates that only 1,152 of the 2,256 respondents were asked this question) — 48% got this right.[2]

Biologists should probably be worried that respondents seem to know less about biology than they do about the physical sciences.

The Appendix tables are full of other interesting information that has not attracted any attention while the media fixate on the astrology-loving geocentrist Americans. Apparently only 33% of respondents have a grasp on “scientific inquiry,” as demonstrated by their (in)ability to answer two probability questions and either a question about theory-testing or a question about why its better to use control groups in drug tests (see ‎Appendix table 7–11).[3] 70% of respondents claim not to know much about the causes of environmental pollution, according to another table. Another table indicates that males and females would be “happier” if their sons and daughters chose to be engineers rather than scientists.

Parental happiness about child’s career as
Scientist Engineer
Male Daughter Son Daughter Son
Male 81% 82% 86% 88%
Female 80% 79% 82% 83%

Engineers are, no doubt, “happy” to learn of this parental esteem.

Despite science purportedly being an international collaborative project, the NSF’s 2014 Science & Engineering Indicators digest of the report makes it a nationalist concern:

Many other nations, recognizing the economic and social benefits of such investment, have increased their R&D and education spending. These trends are by now well-established and will challenge the world leadership role of the United States [page 2].

This rhetoric recalls the debates recently last year in England about investing more in domestic R&D. Kieron Flanagan wrote a nice piece in The Guardian about the problems of framing debates about science and basic research in terms of national boundaries, Does the UK need to spend more on basic research?.


  1. Perhaps we should also worry about the term “scientific,” which is notoriously difficult to define.  ↩

  2. A subset of these questions was used in determining the trends in “factual knowledge” reported in Appendix table 7–8:  ↩

    • The center of the Earth is very hot.
    • All radioactivity is man-made.
    • It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
    • Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
    • Electrons are smaller than atoms.
    • Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
    • The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.
    • Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
    • How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?
  3. “Scientific inquiry” here could be applied to most rigorous, rational, evidence based activities.  ↩

Illustrating Galileo, ca. 1955

In 1952 F. Sherwood Taylor delivered the Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution on “How Science has Grown.” These became the basis for his book, An Illustrated History of Science. One reviewer praised Taylor for having “simply and concisely presented the panorama of science from the ancient Sumeria of some 7,000 years ago up to Einstein and modern nuclear physics.” Taylor drew on his considerable expertise—a chemist by training, he was the founding editor of Ambix, was curator at The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, and ended his career as Director of the Science Museum in London.

The illustrations in Taylor’s book are at times taken from the historical record—photos of instruments or illustrations from early printed books—and at times the product of his and his illustrator’s imagination. He defended their work, saying:

Scientists and historians alike look askance at modern pictures of past events, feeling that the author and artist cannot fail to incorporate details for which no authority can be found. But if the reader accepts these pictures, not as authoritative sources, but as a synthesis of what has been transmitted by documents and what the author and artist know about the ways of life in days gone by, he will find in them the means of forming a visual idea of the men and events that brought science to its present position of pre-eminence. Yet in order that the student may not be tantalized, I have provided an appendix indicating some of the sources which we have used in devising these windows on the past.

Of the many iconic moments and issues Taylor selected to illustrate, he devoted four to Galileo. Interpreting a diagram from Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, we see Galileo trying to measure the force of a vacuum:

130323galileo1.jpg

Another scene shows Galileo watching a lamp swinging from the ceiling of the cathedral in Pisa:

130323galileo2.jpg

And Galileo reclines on a dock in Venice while he observes the skies through his telescope:

130323galileo3.jpg

At other times we see Harvey preparing to dissect a body, or Aristotle examining an octopus, or Hook preparing a flea for inspection, or members of the Royal Society lounging in an opulent chamber, one of the petting a cat. The illustrations throughout the book offer fascinating glimpses into not the distant past, but into a 1950s that imagined the distant past.

Alice Bell on Brecht’s Life of Galileo

Our scientist is an anti-hero not just for dramatic reasons or historical accuracy, but because Brecht wants to argue for collective rather than individual agency when it comes to understanding our world and working out how to make it better. The rallying cry of this play is to build a science and technology for the people, by the people, not simply defer to experts.

In “A Life of Galileo: What Brecht can teach us about the public ownership of science” Alice Bell offers a nice analysis of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Bertold Brecht’s Life of Galileo.