My recent post on Kepler and Galileo contained a statement about Galileo’s relative obscurity in 1597 that provoked the following comment from Porlock Junior:
BTW, as to obscurity: the first known mention of Galileo in English comes in 1611, a year after Sidereus Nuncius, in a work by John Donne, no less: Ignatius his Conclave, about Loyola in Hell, which as I recall is somewhere between Dante and Shaw in the X in Hell genre.
It also provoked this from another commentator:
Galileo was completely unknown in Europe in 1597? Not quite: his father Vincenzo had been active working for some years in music theory…
Before returning to 1611 and John Donne I will first say a few words about Vincenzo. It is in fact true that Vincenzo Galilei played a significant role in the Renaissance music theory discussion and even turns up in Kepler’s contribution to the subject in his Harmonices Mundi. However in terms of his notoriety one must consider the following facts. The works of Zarlino, Vincenzo’s theory teacher and his opponent in the discussion didn’t become known outside of Italy until the first quarter of 17th century and so Vincenzo, who had died in 1591, would also not have been known in 1597. Secondly although the fundamental discussion on music intervals and similar problems in the Renaissance is seen today by the musicologist as seminal, at the time that it took place it was only of interest for a very small group of experts. Lastly even if Vincenzo had been known to a wider circle of European music experts this says nothing about general public awareness of the existence of his son.
In terms of the notoriety, or lack of, of a scientist one is always hindered by the reputation that the person in question enjoys today. In the case of Galileo we have the problem that he is along with Newton and Einstein one of the three most famous physicists of all time and this strongly colours our perception of him in his own times. In fact not only was Galileo relatively obscure in 1597, if he had died 12 years later in 1609, a not unrealistic speculation as he was then already 45 years old and did not enjoy the best of health, he would have been remembered, if at all, as a competent but insignificant North Italian teacher of mathematics who had a good reputation as an instrument maker. He might also be know as the author of an interesting paper on hydrostatics that although distributed in Northern Italy in manuscript had never been published and was obviously in need of further work. To put it bluntly Galileo would just have been another Renaissance mathematicus and nothing special.
So what changed? Why did he feature alongside Copernicus, Kepler and Clavius in John Donne’s brilliant anti Jesuit satire Ignatius and his Conclave in 1611? Porlock Junior has already revealed the answer in his comment, what had changed was the publication 400 years ago on 12th March 1610 of the Sidereus Nuncius. This book made Galileo, almost overnight, to a scientific Superstar throughout Europe and it’s first from here on that Galileo as he is perceived today comes into existence. Even so there still remains the question how John Donne got access to the Sidereus Nuncius so soon that he could include its author in his own work only one year later? The answer is found in the English Ambassador to Venice Henry Wotton. Wotton had been James I’s (VI if you’re Scottish) Venetian ambassador since 1604 and was a close friend of Paolo Sarpi who was a long time friend of Galileo. In fact it was Sarpi who had first made Galileo aware of the telescope. Wotton who was a big science fan sent two copies of the Sidereus Nuncius to London by diplomatic courier one day after its publication in Venice. As a result intellectual circles in London, including such as Donne or Thomas Harriot were amongst the first in Europe to read of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries.
The use of the pop terminology “superstar” is justified in this case because in this phase Galileo’s fame rested on a set of observations with a new scientific instrument rather than any real scientific achievement and as such was more a result of sensation than anything else. Again, if he had died soon after and never written and published the Assayer, the Dialogo and the Discorsi (including that reworked paper on hydrostatics) his fame what have dimmed over the years and with it his status in the history of science. The Sidereus Nuncius catapulted Galileo into the public gaze but it was his later works that established his real reputation as a methodologist and theorist.