Help! I’ve just been savaged by a toothless American bulldog.

I really think that the BBC is trying to piss me off this week. First they dish up the total disaster that was Great Lives “Galileo” on Radio 4. Then they present a highly questionable documentary on Isaac Newton on BBC 4, which, have no fear gentle readers, I will deal with in a later post. Finally Adam Gopnik abuses his position as one of the rotating cast of speakers on Radio 4’s Point of View to insult the critics of his highly dubious New Yorker Galileo essay. Add to this Radio 1’s totally wrong and highly cowardly refusal to play Ding Dong The Witch is Dead followed by some maverick BBC reporters making life very difficult for all student field trips to non democratic countries in the future and I could fall out of love with the Corporation that had nourished my soul since I first started to become aware of sound.

Mr Gopnik! Adam Gopnik chose this Sunday to answer those people who had possessed the infernal cheek to criticise his god given words on the great Galileo Galilei. Did he do so by engaging with his critics? Maybe he did so by producing some evidence to back up those of his utterances that had been deemed false by his detractors. Wrong on both counts. Our internationally renowned wordsmith resorted to the lowest form of riposte, the argumentum ad hominem.

I am conceited enough to thing that I personally was, at least, one of the targets at which his insults were launched, because of my criticism of his previous misrepresentation of John Dee, and having both heard the original broadcast and read the transcript of his talk all I can say is that I feel that I have been savaged by a toothless, arthritic American bulldog that is stone deaf and suffers from cataracts. It doesn’t really hurt and one feels slightly embarrassed at having to bat the poor demented creature away but its drool, which as all dog owners know if very slimy and gooey, is difficult to get out of one’s clothes.

So how does Mr Gopnik go about insulting his critics? He doesn’t do it directly but hides it behind even more waffle about Galileo, which only compounds his errors from the original article.

He starts of his talk with the following world-weary complaint of the plagued author:

When you write for a living, over time you learn that certain subjects will get set responses. You’re resigned to getting the responses before you write the story.


…you will get many letters and emails from what we call the cracked (and I think you call the barking)…


The oddest response, though, is if you write making an obvious point about an historical period or historical figure, you will get lots of letters and emails insisting that the obvious thing about the guy or his time is completely wrong.

By now you should be getting the drift, it is inconceivable that Mr Gopnik is wrong about anything, he obviously has god like powers and is omniscient, so it follows that his critics are not just wrong they are barking mad.

Now just in case you think that our god like author is only talking about those who are genuinely cracked he makes very clear that he isn’t:

Now these letters and emails come more often from the half-bright, some of them professional academics, than from the fully bonkers or barking.

You can tell the half-bright from the barking because the barking don’t know how little they know, while the half-bright know enough to think that they know a lot, but don’t know enough to know what part of what they know is actually worth knowing.

We now finally arrive at the grounds for our sterling authors woes his essay on Galileo. This time he choses to base his story around the myth of Galileo throwing balls off the Tower of Pisa. He sort of half admits that it might not be true. It’s actually a complete load of rubbish. However he doesn’t think that that matters because “it’s a legend that points towards the truth”. This shows that Gopnik neither understands Galileo nor physics. The story is a load of rubbish because it wouldn’t produce a result that confirms the laws of fall, it would instead confirm Aristotle’s view, which Galileo knew full well and which is why he would never had tried it. Galileo was not stupid.

Gopnik now goes into hagiographic modus:

In 1632 Galileo wrote a great book – his Dialogue On Two World Systems. It’s one of the best books ever written because it’s essentially a record of a temperament, of a kind of impatience and irritability that leads men to drop things from towers and see what happens when they fall.

The Dialogo is indeed a fine piece of polemic carefully constructed to cover the yawning gaps in the science that it contained. In those parts where Galileo sticks to his undoubted strengths as an experimental scientist it is about men who design carefully thought out, skilfully constructed and studiously carried out experiments and not about impatient and irritable idiots who throw things off towers.

Having led us away from his lament about the crackpots who make his life so difficult he now returns to stick the knife in to those barking critics who dared to contradict the master.

In that essay I wrote about Galileo I compared him to John Dee, the famous English magician, alchemist and astrologer, who was one of his contemporaries who was also a consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, and who read everything there was to read in his time and knew everything there was to know in the esoterica of his time – but didn’t know what was worth knowing.

Notice how he carefully avoids crediting Dee with being a Renaissance mathematicus, which he indubitably was, and one of the leading mathematical practitioners in Europe in the third quarter of the 16th century. Also notice the subtle piece of invention at the end, “but didn’t know what was worth knowing”. This is a claim of Gopnik’s own creation and is in no way backed up by the historical facts about Dee.

He knew a lot about Copernicus, for instance, but he also spent half his life trying to talk to angels and have demons intervene to help him turn lead into gold.

Here we have a lovely example of rhetorical bait-and-switch. Dee might have known a lot about Copernicus but that knowledge was worthless because he talked to angels. In fact Dee and his group, Thomas Digges, John Feild (sic), Robert Recorde, Gemma Frisius etc, played an important and highly significant role in the propagation and dissemination of the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis, something that Gopnik with his black and white vision of the history of science is apparently incapable of understanding. Or more probably he can’t acknowledge because to do so he would have to admit that he is wrong and as we already know he can’t be wrong because he’s omniscient.

Now Mr Gopnik descends to the level of sneering condescension a sure sign that he has run out of real arguments and has to rely on argumentum ad hominem:

Well, it turns out that John Dee the magician and astrologer has his admirers – indeed his web pages and his fan clubs and his chatboard, just like Harry or Liam or Justin – and they took up the cause of the old alchemist with me. How dare you knock John, his fans, some of them half-bright, some of them just a little, well, barking, insisted. Wasn’t he a formidably erudite man particularly on just those subjects – stars and orbits and falling objects – that Galileo cared about too? Why shut him out of the scientific creed.

The only sentence worth noting in this gratuitous piece of slime is the final question, “Why shut him out of the scientific creed?” Gropnik’s answer is illuminating as it displays his total ignorance of the history of science:

Well, that was the point I was making. And it seems to me worth making again – and then again and then again. It just can’t be made too often.

The scientific revolution wasn’t an extension in erudition. It involved instead what we might call a second-order attitude to erudition – and if that sounds fancy, it just means the human practice of calling bull on an idea which you think is full of it, and being unafraid to do so.

Dee was a learned man – too learned a man, in fact, in whose head all kinds of stuff lodged, some obviously silly and some in retrospect sane, but impacted together like trash in a dump heap. Above all, his work is filled with supernatural explanations – with angels and demons and astrological spells.

There are two salient points to be made here “the scientific revolution […] means […] calling bull on an idea which you think is full of it, and being unafraid to do so”. Ignoring for the moment the fact that the majority of historians of science no longer believe in a thing called the scientific revolution Gopnik’s characterisation of what happened to science in the seventeenth century is totally and fundamentally wrong. Modern science emerged throughout the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from an incredible jumble of rational, semi-rational, moderately weird and totally bat-shit insane ideas, concepts and theories. I would suggest that Mr Gopnik should avoid the works of Johannes Kepler who contributed considerably more to the development of modern science than Galileo (and yes I’m prepared at anytime to defend that claim). Kepler’s contributions to science emerged in a pot pourri of Renaissance ideas and theories that at times make even Dee’s conversations with angels seem almost rational. I shall come to Newton’s alchemy in a minute.

We return to Dr Dee:

Dee was a learned man – too learned a man, in fact, in whose head all kinds of stuff lodged, some obviously silly and some in retrospect sane, but impacted together like trash in a dump heap. Above all, his work is filled with supernatural explanations – with angels and demons and astrological spells.

Again we catch Gopnik making things up. Dee’s work was in no way, “impacted together like trash in a dump heap.” I challenge Mr Gopnik to search Dee’s mathematical writings on cartography, navigation and astronomy for the angels and demons. I will personally buy him a pint of his favourite beverage for every single one he finds. I know that I won’t actually have to open my wallet because unlike Mr Gopnik I have studied John Dee’s mathematical work and I know what I’m talking about.

Galileo, emphatically did not believe in magic. Galileo has no time for supernatural explanations of any kind – indeed, when he goes wrong, as he did when he rejected the idea that the Moon causes the tides, it’s because he resists the right explanation because it just sounds too strange or magical.[1]

I suggest that Mr Gopnik never reads Galileo’s Il Saggiatore, the polemic pamphlet containing his famous quote about the book of nature. Here he would find his hero vehemently defending the completely irrational Aristotelian theory of comets against the reasonably correct theory of Grassi based on observation just to score rhetorical points, a low point in the writings of the Tuscan polymath. This is just one example of several; Galileo was by no means as rational and scientific as Gopnik would wish him to be.

History has taught us that science didn’t just happen in a burst. Alchemy and astrology evolved slowly and over time into chemistry and astronomy.

Wow! Gopnik actually got something right for a change.

Galileo even made a buck in his youth by casting horoscopes for rich people.

You can almost hear the subtext screaming “But he didn’t believe in it, not my Galileo!” Just for the record Galileo was a professional teacher and practitioner of astrology and all of the available evidence suggests very strongly that he also believed in it.

There were no bright lines. Indeed sometimes science slipped back into astrology and alchemy and superstition and the occult. It’s well-known that Isaac Newton spent a lifetime searching for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Again Gopnik either doesn’t know what he is talking about or he is being deliberately misleading. Galileo in no way marks the end of astrology or alchemy as mainstream branches of knowledge in the seventeenth century so what we have is not a case of slipping back. Astrology first lost its academic and scientific status around 1660 and alchemy went on being acceptable, albeit in a strange secretive manner, into the beginnings of the eighteenth century. In fact I once wrote a short piece about the alchemical correspondence between Newton, Boyle and Locke. As I pointed out in another post on the entanglement of science and pseudo-science Newton’s very serious study of alchemy played a very significant role in the development of his universal theory of gravity. But that of course cannot be because as Gopnik informs us alchemy is bull and that has nothing to do with real science.

The closing paragraphs of Gopnik’s piece are a pathetic pleading for his version of science against the esoteric of the cracked and barking. It is straight out of the neo-positivist’s handbook of nineteenth century rationalism which I cannot be bothered to waste you time dismantling

Mr Gopnik if people criticise what you have written about the history of Renaissance science you might do well to open your ears and listen to what they have to say. If you did so then you might just learn something. However instead of listening you decided to insult your critics and to make stuff up to justify the false claims you made in the first place. If you are going to pontificate about the history of science in the Early Modern Period then might I suggest that you go away and learn something about it first before you start shouting your mouth off. Even better why don’t you write something about art instead? I’ve head that’s a subject that you might actually know something about.

[1] I was planning on tackling Galileo’s claims on his reasons for rejecting a lunar tides theory in this post but as it is already far too long and still growing I think I’ll save that for a separate one.

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Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

17 responses to “Help! I’ve just been savaged by a toothless American bulldog.

  1. Michael Weiss

    Hoo boy. I followed the link: Gopnik’s full screed is even worse than you describe.

    Two questions and one anecdote:

    (a) Not sure what you mean by neo-positivism; Gopnik’s little fable of science as a toddler knocking over blocks doesn’t match the positivism as I know it (Vienna circle).

    (b) When you say that the tower experiment would verify Aristotle’s theory, you don’t really mean his ‘speed is proportional to weight’ theory, do you?

    When I taught high-school physics, we repeated the “Galileo” experiment from the third story window onto the lawn with bowling balls, tennis balls, etc. A few lab-report conclusions (fortunately not too numerous) always summed up the results as confirming Galileo’s great discovery that heavier objects fall faster.

    (And yes, I did point out in class that there was no evidence Galileo ever performed the experiment.)

    • I am not sure that Aristotle did say speed was proportional to weight. Aristotle says that air resistance will cause things of different weights to fall at different speeds in the Physics, but I think it was Philoponus who came up with the “Aristotelian” claim.

      • Michael Weiss

        No, Aristotle had proportionality, expressed by way of examples. See Book VII of his Physics, also Book III of On the Heavens, or Drabkin’s article “Notes on the Laws of Motion in Aristotle” (1938). Philoponus modified Aristotle’s laws, subtracting the resistance instead of dividing by it. In the late Middle Ages you find other proposals; see Clagett’s Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages for all the gory details.

      • Michael Weiss

        One complication I should have mentioned: Aristotle doesn’t talk about speed explicitly (nor did the medieval philosophers), since that would involve dividing a quantity of one kind (distance) by another kind (time), a no-no in the Greek theory of proportion. Instead it was phrased in terms of distance: if a weight falls a given distance in a given time, then twice the weight will move twice the distance in the same time. Likewise for forces.

        Also I should have referenced Physics, Book IV for the weights; Book VII is for forces.

      • It should be pointed out that Aristotle never symbolized or quantified his theory so how a mathematical model of it would look we can’t actually say, only speculate.

      • Michael Weiss

        I take your point; certainly a huge gulf separates Aristotle from, say, Archimedes.

        On the other hand, consider these two passages from the Physics, IV:8 (translation by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye)

        Now the medium causes a difference because it impedes the moving thing, most of all if it is moving in the opposite direction, but in a secondary degree even if it is at rest; and especially a medium that is not easily divided, i.e. a medium that is somewhat dense. A, then, will move through B in time G, and through D, which is thinner, in time E (if the length of B is egual to D), in proportion to the density of the hindering body. For let B be water and D air; then by so much as air is thinner and more incorporeal than water, A will move through D faster than through B. Let the speed have the same ratio to the speed, then, that air has to water. Then if air is twice as thin, the body will traverse B in twice the time that it does D, and the time G will be twice the time E. And always, by so much as the medium is more incorporeal and less resistant and more easily divided, the faster will be the movement.


        These are the consequences that result from a difference in the media; the following depend upon an excess of one moving body over another. We see that bodies which have a greater impulse either of weight or of lightness, if they are alike in other respects, move faster over an equal space, and in the ratio which their magnitudes bear to each other. Therefore they will also move through the void with this ratio of speed.

        Given that the Greek theory of proportion was well-established by this time, why should we doubt that Aristotle meant what he said?

        (I have to take the translation on faith; if you think it’s not an accurate rendition of the Greek original, please let me know.)

        In any event, the medieval peripatetic tradition certainly interpreted him this way (at least according to Clagett), so by the time of Stevin, Benedetti, Galileo, etc., it’s a moot point.

        Incidentally, the only allusion to this I’ve been able to find the Dialogue (not the Discourses) is in the Second Day, in passing, while Salviati is “proving” that centrifugal force doesn’t exist (anachronistic shorthand). Salviati says merely:

        Of this I adduce experiment as the proof, which will show us that a weight thirty or forty time heavier than another (for example a ball of lead and another of cork) will scarcely move more than twice as fast.

    • Thony C

      All I meant was the more general proposition that heavier object fall faster than lighter ones as opposed to the Galilean proposition that objects (in vacuo) all fall at the same speed irrespective of weight.

      • Michael Weiss

        OK, thanks. It’s interesting that Galileo inveighs against exactly this cruder qualitative version in the Discourses:

        But, Simplicio, I trust you will not follow the example of many others who divert the discussion from its main intent and fasten upon some statement of mine which lacks a hair’s-breadth of the truth and, under this hair, hide the fault of another which is as big as a ship’s cable….You find, on making the experiment, that the larger outstrips the smaller by two finger-breadths …; now you would not hide between these two fingers the ninety-nine cubits of Aristotle, nor would you mention my small error and at the same time pass over in silence his very large one.

        All the late medieval writers in Clagett treat the matter quantitatively. Several propose modifying Aristotle’s rules in various ways. (I think even Philoponus, in the 6th C., noted the approximate equality for time-of-fall for all reasonably heavy objects.) Galilo may be attacking a straw-man — or maybe he has in mind the students I mentioned ;-)

        In any case, the followers of Aristotle recognized the key variables (weight, air resistance, specific gravity) and grappled with the problem of finding the right law based on these, not just dogmatically following Aristotle — facts of which Gopnik seems completely ignorant.

  2. Replies to critics that are equal parts bluster, bathos and (attempted) bullying are like a neon sign saying “I never did know what I was talking about.”

  3. I have no other comment on this ludicrous miniature dog fight other than “bow wow.” I do however hope that they succeed in banning such ugly displays for humanity’s sake.

  4. Michael Weiss

    Thony — switching to Kepler, for a moment, whom you mention briefly in this post: do you believe there was actually anything irrational about his approach (either in the Astronomia Nova, or the Harmonica Mundi), judged by the standards of the time?

    • That would all depend on who you asked. In general the majority of philosophical minded in the first quarter of the 17th century would have found nothing peculiar in Kepler’s meta-physics but they would also would have found nothing peculiar in Flood’s meta-physics, which Kepler found totally unacceptable.

      On the other hand Galileo probably found Kepler’s meta-physics totally unacceptable, however he never commented upon it. Strangely he derided as totally unreadable Kepler’s Dioptrice, a book in which we would not find anything objectionable.

      Within the framework of Renaissance philosophy there was nothing particularly strange about Kepler’s meta-physics but very few of his contemporaries actually said anything positive about it.

  5. Pingback: OPUS 500: A retrospective | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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