Tag: Popular History of Science

Kanye West & Galileo

Kanye West’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live took an unexpected turn when West invoked Galileo, implying that they were both misunderstood geniuses who wouldn’t be silenced by bullies telling them what to think. West was responding to Kimmel, who had asked about West’s views on the president.[1] I’m not interested West’s opinions about the president. I am, however, fascinated by his use of history.

In a long, meandering reply that didn’t actually answer Kimmel’s almost question—“Do you like…? Do you think he is a good president?”[2]—West seemed to be saying that he, West, was a free thinker and that he would not be told by anybody what to think. A minute or two into his reply, West enlisted Galileo as predecessor and partner in resisting the thought police and societal oppression:

Kanye West invokes Galileo to justify his free thinking.

[West] Right or wrong or even if I changed my mind about it[3] or thought about it more, which I’m not saying I did, just place a thought out there that everyone’s not thinking sometimes. Galileo, they wanted to chop his head off for saying that…the earth uh that, what did he say?, the the the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa …. So when you have modern, futuristic ….

[Kimmel] But the sun…but…but the sun…

[West] I’m not concerned about specifics sir.

Here’s the audio of that portion, if you want to hear it:

Wow. Let’s pause for a moment and process West’s hesitation. He stumbled over whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth. That’s not history. That’s not science. That’s just basic life. So basic, in fact, that I can’t excuse West’s uncertainty as a nervous misstep.

Invoking Galileo as some martyr for free and rational thinking who stood up to the dogmatic, oppressive Church that wanted to execute him is nothing new. But usually people who conjure up the ghost of Galileo know that Galileo espoused and argued vigorously for the Copernican, heliocentric system, the model in which the earth revolves around the sun. And while we no longer think the sun is stationary, we still accept today the core features of the Copernican system as valid and verifiable (as Kimmel seemed to be fumbling towards saying). And usually people who invoke Galileo do so because, they typically claim, they are concerned about the specifics. Galileo got it right, as the evidence we have today demonstrates. Those specifics usually matter.

But as West says, the specifics don’t matter to him. History, after all, is holding “us back as a race of beings:”[4]

I think people focus too much on the past and focus too much on regret. Even like when you deal with schools, you take like my slave idea. My my point is I’ve heard of history class. I’ve never heard of a class that breaks down how you, ya know, balance a checkbook or how you control your finances, which uh my father never taught me that, and I’ve never heard of a future class. So they keep us so focused on history that we start to believe that it actually repeats itself and we become overly traditional and we can’t advance as a race of beings. We get too caught up in the past and what everyone’s saying and what everyone’s tweeting ….

I have a different idea here, one I’m going to place out there even if everyone’s not thinking it: History does matter. And paying attention in history class, not just hearing “of history class” but listing in history class, matters.[5] And history classes are not the problem. Focusing on history doesn’t convince us that history “actually repeats itself” and prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” No, ignoring history, thinking history and historical facts are infinitely malleable or that the specifics don’t matter, that’s the danger that prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.”[6] Such willful ignorance, such open rejection of history empowers factions in society to “become overly traditional,” because once you deny history, society can and will continually make up whatever tradition that suits its immediate needs. Winston’s dystopian future will become our present:

All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

History matters, as West instinctively realizes in his use (and abuse) of it to validate and justify his own position, because of the specifics. Once we lose the details, the historical facts and the evidence, then we’re just making stuff up.

If for some reason you want to watch more of the interview, this search should produce a link to the YouTube video.


  1. Unlike West’s response, Kimmel’s question about the president was anything but unexpected.  ↩

  2. West said he was going to answer the question Kimmel was going to ask but didn’t, the question about liking the president.  ↩

  3. I.e., West’s ideas and opinions about the president.  ↩

  4. The irony of his having just deployed one of the more famous episodes in Western history to support him and his position seems to have been lost on West.  ↩

  5. Yes, other classes matter too. And yes, West is right, classes on basic economics and finances are worthwhile (and offered in many schools and colleges).  ↩

  6. I need to point out that I have no idea what West means by “advance as a race of beings,” especially the retro–1950s, invaders from another planet “race of beings” bit.  ↩

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:

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

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

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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.

Gopnik on Galileo

Adam Gopnik’s essay in The New Yorker, “Moon Man. What Galileo Saw,” swings between unfortunate mischaracterizations and reasonable statements.

We sigh as we read the worn-out myth about Galileo as the founder of modern science (there are various critiques of such founder myths):

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.

Then a paragraph later, we rejoice in reading Gopnik reject another common myth about Galileo, that he said “eppur si muove:”

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.