How to look silly without really trying

In the television debate of potential Republican Party candidates for next year’s American presidential election Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, made the fatal mistake of comparing himself to Galileo Galilei when questioned on his climate change skepticism. This piece of stupidity was instantly jumped upon by commentators, bloggers and journalists all over the western hemisphere. However not all of them in their haste to pillory Governor Perry bothered to check their facts before putting finger to keyboard. One example of a blogger/journalist jumping in with both feet is M. J. Robbins of The Guardian. Mr Robbins wrote a short semi-satirical piece comparing the presidential hopeful and the Tuscan mathematicus. I won’t reproduce the whole piece but the following paragraph caught my eye as a historian of Renaissance science.

How else are they similar? Both have a keen interest in science. Galileo’s many contributions include discovering the moons of Jupiter with a telescope he invented, establishing the heliocentric model of the solar system, developing a theory of tides and improving the compass, pump, cannon and numerous other devices. Perry has a degree in farm animals (or “animal science” as it’s known). A “firm believer in intelligent design”, he believes climate change is a great con conceived by scientists with support from the media, and says that while he is “no expert on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate”, gay people “should simply choose abstinence anyway”.

Not being a political commentator I shan’t comment on the remarks about Perry but I will examine the claims made by the crowing M.J. about Galileo, he writes, Galileo’s many contributions include:

discovering the moons of Jupiter with a telescope he invented

Now it is indisputable that Galileo was one of the discoverers of the first four moons of Jupiter, Simon Marius discovered them independently  one day later, but Galileo did not invent a telescope. He modified the so-called Dutch telescope invented by the spectacle maker Hans Lippershey in 1608.

Score 1 Right : 1 Wrong

establishing the heliocentric model of the solar system

Galileo did not establish the heliocentric model of the solar system Johannes Kepler did. In fact with the dispute that he provoked with the Catholic Church Galileo probably did much to hinder the establishing of the heliocentric model. He also in refusing to acknowledge Kepler’s work presented a redundant incorrect model of the heliocentric system which was also not particularly productive.

Score 1 Right : 2 Wrong

developing a theory of tides

This is correct but one should add that his theory of the tides was embarrassingly wrong and in fact contradicted the known empirical facts on the ebb and flow of tides. If contributions means positive scientific achievements, and I assume it does, this should definitely not be in the list.

Score 1 right : 3 wrong

improving the compass, pump, cannon and numerous other devices

Now Galileo was a skilled instrument maker who before he became a courtier earned a substantial part of his income designing, making and selling scientific and technological instruments. Now whilst he did patent a horse driven pump in his youth, but whether is was an improvement is questionable, I know of no improvements to either the compass or the cannon and numerous other devices is to put it mildly somewhat of an exaggeration. I’ll be generous and award a point for the pump making minus two for this section.

Score 2 Right : 5 Wrong

Now for somebody writing under the banner of one of Britain’s best journalistic organizations  Mr Robbins’ accuracy on the subject, the life and work of Galileo Galilei, is pretty miserable. In fact as his history of science examiner I can only award him a big fat F.


Filed under Humour

2 responses to “How to look silly without really trying

  1. Yeah, the total amount of general misunderstanding here has been really appalling. The thing that makes it even more ridiculous is that for a lot of the people criticizing Perry’s remarks, the factual mistakes they are making if anything would make their arguments stronger not weaker.

    Marginally on topic: I have some recall that at one point there were some authors who had a semi-Heracleidian model where only Venus orbited the sun (as opposed to Venus and Mercury) but I haven’t been able to find any sources which confirm this. Do you know if this is correct?

    • I’m currently re-reading Christine Schofield’s Tychonic and Semi-Tychonic World Systems and although she lists in great detail all those who preferred a Heracleidian model to a Tychonic one post 1610 she no where mentions the variant you describe. Should you find a reference for it let me know I would be interested.

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