Press and Pop Culture

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.

19 replies on “Gopnik on Galileo”

Great piece; I really enjoyed this and agree that, while it’s easier to criticize, it would be more productive to follow Nyhart’s suggestion and think about ways to write better while bringing our undiluted expertise to the table.


Thanks for the comment. I as much as the next person enjoy bemoaning the errors in popular history of science and basking in the warm glow of my superior erudition. But I have to admit that while cathartic, such wallowing doesn’t accomplish much. I think we historians of science (by which I mean historians of technology and historians of medicine too) have a lot more to offer.


Very well done. Too bad your piece wasn’t in The New Yorker. Gopnik didn’t so much as crack the Roman Inquisition book and you may imagine how pleased it made me feel to be implicitly called both a supporter of intelligent design and a flack for the Vatican.


Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment. I am flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as The New Yorker.

Having been coöpted and dismissed in equal amounts in contemporary arguments about astrology, I sympathize with your position.

As always a nice thoughtful post Darin. I agree in principle with everything you say but I still think that Gopnik’s article is extremely pernicious. He meanders all over the place but in the end his central message is that modern historical scholarship is wrong and the old myth of Galileo a martyr for science persecuted by the evil totalitarian church is correct.

Already this afternoon Graham Farmelo, a physicist who has written a highly praised biography of Dirac, tweeted the following:

“Galileo’s alleged heresy, brilliantly illuminated by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker”

to his three and a half thousand followers. And I fear that is the message that 95% of the readers will take with them from Gopnik’s polemic.


You are absolutely right to worry about the traction Gopnik’s piece will get and, consequently, the wider circulation and misplaced credit the “martyr for science” story will enjoy (this was my fear with Huler’s invocation of the “eppur si muove” myth in Scientific American—and much to my regret, that was one of the magazine’s most popular posts last year). I don’t have a quick or simple solution to that problem. But we have to do more than simply point out the problems.

I fear that standing on the sidelines and yelling “You idiots don’t know anything about anything” won’t be as effective as I would like, however much it makes me smile. And unfortunately, as long as historians of science don’t learn to play the game, we will be dismissed as pedantic cranks and the Gopniks and Farmelos will continue to colonize our domain of expertise, which we have all but ceded it to them already.

At the moment I don’t have a viable platform from which to offer a reply. But I’m working on it.

Anybody know an editor at The New Yorker willing to talk to me?

So have you written to Gopnik or posted on his New Yorker blog?

I agree with the sentiments at the end. So we historians who are interested in discourse with extra-academic audiences need to get into the mix. See if we can get a rise out of Gopnik–comment with specifics, ideas, and wit in fora he will see. See if we can get him to follow us on Twitter. This NYer article is a good opportunity. I’d encourage you to try to engage Gopnik. It might not work; it often doesn’t. But keep trying and eventually historians of science will have another connection to the wider world.

Dear Thony and Nathaniel,

Thanks for the suggestions and encouragement. Maybe I’ll succeed this time.

Good luck if you do decide to go for it! As I am learning every day, getting the tone right is nigh on impossible. So too is deciding what’s OK to let roll and what really needs to be tackled. As Thony says, if the take-away argument is radically wrong, this is a problem however much good stuff goes with it. However, it seems that (as in the discussions over the Cox/Ince editorial) the hardest thing is showing why what *we* think is problematic is not a peripheral, nitpicking kind of point. So specifics, facts and detail are essential, but so too, I think, do we need to articulate why, in the end, it matters that we get them right.

Yes, exactly. (I speak not a professional historian, but as someone with an amateur interest.)

In the crucial paragraph Darin quoted, Gopnik attacks what he perceives as the “value neutral” stance of much modern histiography. In other parts of the essay, Gopnik compares the 17C Italian Catholic Church to the Communist Party in China, and he also refers to the intelligent design controversy.

These are all different. Value neutrality has close ties to anti-whiggism or anti-presentism or whatever you want to call it, topic of much recent bloggage (and of course not-so-recent academic papers). For an amateur like me, any defense of value-neutrality gains considerable weight if tied to a concrete contemporary issue.

For example, I would enjoy reading an essay by a professional historian on the lessons (if any) of the Galileo affair for the intelligent design debate. My own feeling is that the circumstances are so different that it’s absurd to treat the one as a precedent for the other. But a “compare and contrast” could still be quite valuable. Lay out the differences, draw conclusions, be forthright about your own biases and opinions.

After all, why do so many people still care so greatly about the Galileo affair? You don’t find the same brouhaha over the actual execution of Jan Hus for heresy! Obviously a big part is that the science-religion tensions are very much alive today.

What is Gopnik’s and The New Yorker’s audience looking for in such an article? They are looking for confirmation of their own prejudices! I’m always bemused by popular writers like Gopnik who praise Galileo for being so “irritable and impatient with the usual stories,” and then proceed to feed their readers … the usual stories. They adopt a posture of fashionable contempt for the “orthodoxy” of others, but fail to subject their own orthodoxies to serious examination.

I never see these writers ask themselves, for example, why it took the church 80 years to get around to Copernicanism; or why it is that Copernicus himself credited the publication of his book to the encouragement of a Catholic cardinal; or why it is that the first challenge to Galileo on theological grounds came not from the Church but from the academics. I really wish Gopnik had considered these questions; I’m sure his answers would be different from mine but I’d be genuinely interested to know what he has to say about them.

How do historians like yourselves respond? As Dr. Mayer says on the first page of his new book, there’s not much one can do about simple human prejudice (and there’s obviously plenty of that when it comes to Galileo and the Church), but you can address benign ignorance. As a defense lawyer I can tell you the most effective way to do that is not to attempt a point-by-point refutation of the other guy (that just comes off as defensive), but to tell your own story as if the other guy isn’t even in the room. If you tell a good, truthful, interesting narrative it will respond much more naturally to any distortions the listener has heard from someone else. That’s why I think Arthur Koestler’s book was so effective. I know, I know, he overstated his case. But to this amateur Galileo historian he seems to have been the most influential “contrarian” writer on this subject in the last half-century. (If I’m overlooking someone please enlighten me because I’d like to read him or her.)

The other possible response is to take the attitude that Gopnik suggests for the persecuted scientist — that is (to paraphrase him), to shrug at the ignorant and say, “Any way you want to tell it, go ahead. You’ve got the printing press and the popular readership. But the historical truth is the historical truth.” Keep doing excellent, honest scholarship and embrace the wisdom of Kepler, who said, “My witnesses are the light of day and time.”

Koestler’s treatment of the Galileo affair benefits greatly from his honesty about his own biases: his dislike of Galileo, “mainly on the grounds of his behavior towards Kepler”, and his “resentment that the conflict did occur at all. One of the points that I have laboured in this book is the unitary source of the mystical and scientific modes of experience; and the disastrous results of their separation.”

What is the most misunderstood historical event?…

Yes, Gopnik’s rather bad piece of amateur commentary on material he doesn’t understand has been the topic of blog discussion amongst real historians of science for the last couple of weeks. Here are Professor Darin Hayton’s musings on how experts in…

Darin, you were right to focus on this graf from Gopnik:

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.

but it would help if you would be more precise about your objections. The oversimplification of history? A mischaracterization of Mayer’s work? Or the fact that Gopnik’s insists on rendering a value judgement. Or the value judgement itself?

Dear Michael and Mark,

Thanks for the comments and questions. I apologize for the delay in taking up some of the questions you pose. I am putting something together now that I hope will engage with some of your comments as well as some of the others raised.