Since you are reading this, you have probably read Adam Gopnik's recent essay-review about Galileo Galilei in The New Yorker. You might also have seen some reactions from unimpressed historians, one of whom calls the article “extremely pernicious.” I think that some of Gopnik's errors have been exaggerated, and that most of his felicities have gone unnoticed. The moral is that us historians should be as alert to what popular writers get right as we are to what they get wrong. After all, we can hardly criticise Gopnik for imbalance in his treatment of Galileo if we are imbalanced in our treatment of Gopnik. To avoid over-balancing in Gopnik's favour, I've included some new “cons” next to some of the thirteen “pros” below. Most of the items on this selective list are included because they are pleasant surprises, ie. claims about Galileo that show a healthy level of historical acumen for someone who does not do history for a living. For example, if Gopnik had not made point 12 below, many would have privately groaned at his naive belief that science is insulated from its cultural context. I'm not suggesting that historians should give a point-by-point assessment of every popular article they comment on; that would paralyse commentary. I've got nothing against the practice of picking out one error from a feature article and tearing it to shreds, as thonyc has done with the Gopnik's comparison between Dee and Galileo. But I do think that we should read popular articles as if we were about to write an analysis like the one I've tried to present in this post. If we look for pleasant surprises, we might find more of them than we expected. My list covers three topics, in this order: Galileo and the Church, Galileo's science, and Galileo's context. My main source on Galileo is one of the subjects of Gopnik's review, an excellent 2010 biography by John Heilbron—the same John Heilbron who starred as Thomas Kuhn's student in my previous post. Galileo and the Church One. Gopnik writes that Galileo's conflict with the Catholic Church was “traceable to his hubris.” This should please those who say, with Thomas Mayer, that “the fault [for the condemnation of Galileo] lies with Galileo, not the pope or the Inquisition” (quoted in this news article.) (Mayer is the author of two works that Gopnik covers in his review; his take on Gopnik's article can be found in the comments of this post. I hope to read Mayer's books in full at some point, but for now I am relying on the snippets from their introductions that are available on Google Books). In fact, the theme of Galileo's insolence in was strong enough in Gopnik's article to antagonise a blogger at the Cato Institute, who read Gopnik as saying that “Galileo could have avoided a lot of trouble if he'd been just a little less stubborn and impolitic.” Two. “The Catholic Church in Italy then was very much like the Communist Party in China now: an institution in which few of the rulers took their own ideology seriously but still held a monopoly on moral and legal authority. … Like the Party in China now, the Church then was pluralistic in practice about everything except an affront to its core powers. … You could calculate, consider, and even hypothesize with Copernicus. You just couldn’t believe in him.” Gopnik is right that the Church could tolerate a large amount of Copernican science, especially when it was useful for things like making calendars. This is a key point that is often missed by those who take a black-and-white view of Galileo's conflict with the Church. On the other hand, I'm not sure where Gopnik got the idea that the rulers of the Catholic Church in Galileo's time did not take religion seriously. Even Galileo was a man of faith, at least according to Heilbron, who thinks that he “believed as surely as Bellarmine [the Pope's chief theologian until his death in 1621] and the majority of Catholic exegetes of their time that every statement in scripture is in some sense true.” But Gopnik is right that the Church was especially sensitive to doctrinal violations that posed a threat to its power:
“In Rome they pardon atheists, sodomites, libertines, and other sorts of rascals, but they never pardon those who bad mouth the Pope or his court, or who seem to question papal power” (needless to say, I got this quote from Heilbron's biography, who attributes it to Gabriel Naudé, the librarian of Urban VIII's nephew).Three. “Galileo even seems to have had six interviews with the sympathetic new Pope, Urban VIII—a member of the sophisticated Barberini family—in which he was more or less promised freedom of expression in exchange for keeping quiet about his Copernicanism.” This is not the sort of concession you would expect from someone who wants to show that there was no room for compromise between Galileo and the Church. Gopnik could have added that Urban VIII was not only willing to publish Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (the book that triggered Galileo's 1633 trial) but that he considered it useful for the church. By showing that he knew all of the arguments in favour of the Copernican hypothesis, Galileo would show that he—along with all good Roman Catholics—had rejected that hypothesis out of piety and epistemic humility and not out of ignorance. I bring this up not to suggest that Gopnik should have mentioned it in his article, but because it must be one of the craftiest rhetorical manoeuvres in the history of Church-science relations. Four. “Though Galileo, vain as ever, thought he could finesse the point, Copernicanism was at the heart of what he wanted to express.” This sentence is a pretty good summary of Galileo's motivations for publishing his Dialogue. It captures the depth of Galileo's Copernican commitment, and the foolishness of his belief that he could dodge censure with verbal trickery. Five. “Galileo’s trial was a bureaucratic muddle, with crossing lines of responsibility, and it left fruitfully unsettled the question of whether Copernican ideas had been declared heretical or if Galileo had simply been condemned as an individual for continuing to promote them after he had promised not to.” “Bureaucratic muddle” echoes Mayer's point, reported in this 2010 article, that the irregularities of Galileo's trial were due to ineptitude rather than malice on the part of Church bureaucrats. The rest of the quoted sentence shows that Gopnik grasps Mayer's point, reported in the same article, that Galileo's punishment in 1633 was at least partly due to his violation of a precept issued against him in 1616. On the minus side, Gopnik omits another of Mayer's points, which is that Galileo was as clumsy as his judges, ie. he made things worse not just through “vanity” or “hubris” but also through sheer legal incompetence. Six. Other scientists have followed Galileo in “ducking and avoiding the consequences of what they discovered”; in general, “science demands heroic minds, but not heroic morals.” These claims, from the final paragraph of Gopnik's article, arguably make Galileo into even less a hero than he really was. Between his Sunspot Letters of 1613 and his trial in 1633, and especially before the precept issued against him in 1616, Galileo often did the opposite of “ducking and avoiding” the consequences of his Copernican views. Galileo's science Seven. Gopnik notes that Galileo's astronomical observations were due to his powers of his interpretation rather than his knowledge of the telescope, and that he did not invent that instrument: “since there were Dutch gadgets in many hands [by the time Galileo made the key observations], and many eyes, he understood what he was seeing as no man of his time had before.” Eight. Despite being a “founder of modern science,” Galileo wrote things that we consider false today, notably that the orbits of the planets around the sun are circular and that the tides are due to the sloshing caused by the acceleration and deceleration of different parts of the earth. As Gopnik puts it, he “had his crotchets.” Moreover, Gopnik suggests that he went wrong about the tides precisely because of the skepticism that makes him seem modern (shades of Paul Feyerabend?). A minor quibble is that Gopnik does not mention the best illustration of this theme, Galileo's 1623 book on comets, the Assayer. Heilbron shows that this work, which contains some of Galileo's most famous remarks about scientific method, was riddled with scientific errors and written out of groundless spite. A bigger complaint is that Gopnik does not mention that Galileo overstated the case for Copernicanism. Many of his arguments showed only that the earth's motion was consistent with sense experience, he completely ignored a compromise model put forward by the great astronomer Tycho Brahe, and his favourite argument for the motion of the earth was based on his dodgy theory of the tides. Many of Galileo's contemporaries, including some of his close friends, were aware of these problems. Heilbron puts it like this: “although [reason and experience] established essential and growing support for Copernican theory [by 1616], it gave no unimpeachable proof.” Nine. The Dialogue did not express a straightforward view about scientific method: “Though Galileo/Salviati wants to convince Simplicio and Sagredo of the importance of looking for yourself, he also wants to convince them of the importance of not looking for yourself.” On the minus side, Gopnik may be too generous when he implies that this two-faced attitude is “philosophically sophisticated.” Perhaps Galileo championed observation when it suited his case, and favoured a priori reflection when sense experience worked against him. Ten. “The temperament [of Galileo] is not all-seeing and curious; it is, instead, irritable and impatient with the usual stories.” This is not a bad paraphrase of Heilbron's point that “perhaps the best single-word descriptor of Galileo is 'critic.'” On the other hand, the reference to "usual stories" is misleading, since Galileo was often a conservative critic. This from pages 1 and 2 of Heilbron's biography:
Galileo was a humanist of the old school. He much preferred Ariosto, the darling poet of the sixteenth century, to Tasso, who would be a favorite of the seventeenth... He stayed with the geometry of the Greeks rather than employ the algebras of his contemporaries... He was not an innovator by temperament. And, we are told, he liked to wear clothes that were fifty years out of date.Another limit on Galileo's critical spirit was that he had trouble applying it to himself. Few people were convinced by Galileo's theory of the tides when he showed it off in Rome in 1615-16. Galileo must have been aware of the weaknesses of the theory, but once he got hold of it he could not let go. Gopnik's comparison between Galileo's temperament and that of his near-contemporary, John Dee, has been ripped apart by thonyc. I'm not going to try to put the pieces back together. But it does seem that the fault, if there is any, lies less with Gopnik that it does with his source. Gopnik could not have guessed that the biography he reviewed left out most of Dee's contributions to modern science, as thonyc seems to say it did. Galileo's context Eleven. The Dialogue was as much a literary achievement as a technical one. Indeed, “it uses every device of Renaissance humanism: irony, drama, comedy, sarcasm, pointed conflict, and a special kind of fantastic poetry.” Twelve. Galileo's “primary education” was in such things as music, drawing, poetry and rhetoric; and this cultural context had an effect on his natural philosophy. It gave him a “competitive, empirical drive” and “intellectual practices of doubting authority and trying out experiments.” A tick for paying attention to context, but possibly a cross for doing so selectively. Gopnik does not mention Heilbron's thesis that Galileo's early literary tastes foretold his black-and-white approach to debates, his heroic self-image, and (remarkably) the absence of the crucial notion of “force” in his mechanics. A determined critic might say that Gopnik has fastened on the cultural elements that make Galileo an ideal modern scientist, and ignored the rest. Thirteen. Galileo framed his discoveries so as to appeal to patrons: “A Tuscan opportunist to the bone, Galileo rushed off letters to the Medici duke in Florence, hinting that, in exchange for a job, he would name the new stars [ie. the moons of Jupiter] after the Medici.” Similarly, the telescope was not just a technical device for Galileo, but an “emblem and icon,” part of his “image.” These are key themes in Mario Biagioli's 1994 book Galileo, Courtier. True, Gopnik probably got this information second-hand, from Heilbron's biography. But it does not follow, as Darin Hayton has suggested, that he “ignores considerable recent work on Galileo.” ******* Gopnik's main errors, in approximate order of seriousness, are to ignore Galileo's overstatement of the Copernican case, to ignore the conservatism and dogmatism that went with his critical spirit, to underestimate the sincerity of his religious faith, to neglect Heilbron's novel and striking thesis about the relevance of Galileo's early literary tastes to his later career, and to omit Mayer's point that Galileo made elementary legal mistakes during his trial. These errors should be seen alongside the many pleasant surprises listed above, of which the most gratifying are, in my opinion, the recognition that Galileo was vain and stubborn, that the Church supported much Copernican science in Galileo's time, that the Pope himself agreed to the publication of an anti-realist version of the Dialogue, and that Galileo's critical spirit was partly responsible for his rejection of Kepler's ellipses and his acceptance of a mechanical tidal theory, two moves that we now regard as major blunders. In my view, and keeping in mind that this is a popular article by a non-specialist author, the pros outweigh the cons by a clear margin. If an unprejudiced non-historian reads Gopnik's article with care, there is a good chance that he or she will come away with a more nuanced and accurate view of the Galileo affair than they started with. In my next post I intend to look at some more general issues that the “Gopnik affair” raises about history-of-science communication. Expand post.