A fresh biography of Galileo (1564-1642).
Books on Galileo are not scarce, but the latest from astrophysicist Livio features the author’s unique insights as well as his concern about the current fashion for giving ideology priority over truth. Livio rocks no boats by describing Galileo as history’s first scientist. The Greeks believed that understanding the universe required thinking; they despised research because human senses are imperfect. In contrast, Galileo wondered about natural phenomenon, observed carefully, performed experiments (in a time before thermometers, stopwatches, and even minute hands), meticulously recorded the results, and—most importantly—publicized them widely in lectures, letters, and books. For 40 years, he was the most famous scientist in Europe, a position he maintained even after his disastrous conflict with the church, after which he spent his final decade under house arrest. Most readers know that the Inquisition condemned Galileo for claiming that the sun did not revolve around the Earth. That the biblical passage describing Joshua stopping the sun (emphasized by prosecutors) proved him wrong seems wacky, but Livio points to several current beliefs that are no improvement. The author’s criticism of science denial and a long section marshaling evidence in favor of climate change and evolution will neither enlighten science-minded readers nor persuade those who disagree. Livio is not alone in believing that people with a deeply held false belief will change their minds if presented with facts. However, research studies invariably show that they won’t. The author truly excels in his explanations of Galileo’s findings as well as his descriptions of the culture of Renaissance Italy. Popular histories extol the scientist’s use of the just invented telescope to galvanize Europe with astronomical discoveries—the moons of Jupiter, phases of Venus, and the mountains on Earth’s moon—but Livio gives equal time to his revelations of the laws of motion, which marked the birth of modern physics.
An expert life of a giant of science.