How much can you get wrong in an eight hundred word biographical sketch of a very famous sixteenth and seventeenth-century mathematicus and philosophicus? – One helluva lot it seems?

If someone is doing the Internet equivalent of being a big-mouthed braggart and posting an article with the screaming title, “10 Absurdly Famous People You Probably Don’t Know Enough About” you would expect them to at least get their historical facts right, wouldn’t you? Well you would be wrong at least as far as “absurdly famous” person number seven is concerned, Galileo Galilei. Tim Urban the author of this provocative article on the ‘Wait But Why’ blog appears to think that history of science is something that you make up as you go along based on personal prejudice mixed up with some myths you picked up some night whilst drunk in a bar. Having not had a real go at somebody else’s terrible history of science for sometime now and not having deflated my favourite punching bag, Galileo or rather the hagiographic imbeciles who write about him, for even longer I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and correct Mr Urban’s little piece as it were a high school term paper. The blue text is original Urban the black comments are mine.


Lived: 1564 – 1642

He makes a promising start in that he at least got the years of birth and death right, although with the same amount of effort he could have given us the exact dates – 15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642

In 11 words: Rare giant of scientific advancement fighting against hopelessly-backward Catholic Church

After that reasonably good beginning we go rapidly down hill. As I have commented on a number of occasions Galileo was by no means as rare or as gigantic as he is usually painted. He also spent most of his life getting along very happily with the Catholic Church with whom he was on good terms and which was in a lot of things, including scientific one, anything but hopelessly-backward. Just to quote one example about which I’ve blogged in the past, it was the Jesuit astronomers at the Collegio Romano who delivered the very necessary scientific confirmations of Galileo’s telescopic astronomical discoveries and then invited Galileo to Rome to celebrate them.

His main thing: Einstein called Galileo “the father of modern science,” which sums things up pretty nicely.

Einstein, as a leading historian of Renaissance science is of course highly qualified to make such a judgement. Regular readers of this blog should by now know my opinion of such expressions as “the father of” and in particular their use to describe Galileo. For those that don’t I recommend my post, “Extracting the stopper”, as a good starting-point.

Galileo made major discoveries about the motion of planets and stars, the motion of uniformly accelerated objects (i.e. that two objects would fall at the same rate regardless of their masses), sound frequency, and the basic principle of relativity, among other things

I must admit to being somewhat perplexed by the claim that Galileo made “major discoveries about the motion of planets and stars”; I’m not aware of any achievements by the good man in this direction, perhaps somebody could enlighten me?

—and major advancements in technology, including inventing or improving upon the telescope, microscope, thermometer, pendulum, and the compass.

Galileo made an improved telescope and might have been one inventor of the microscope, although this is clouded in uncertainty. He experimented with a thermoscope, not a thermometer, but probably did not invent it. He neither invented nor improved the pendulum and I don’t think he or anybody else ever claimed that he did so. He did however investigate the properties of the pendulum, although the law he set out for the pendulum is actually wrong.

The last claim is quite funny and turns up time and time again quoted by people who literally don’t know what they are talking about. Galileo had nothing to do with the (magnetic) compass but manufactured and marketed an improved version of the sector, or proportional or military compass. This is a hinged ruler with numerous scales used for making mathematical calculations particularly by artillery officers. This instrument has several independent inventors; the one improved by Galileo was invented by his mentor, Guidobaldo del Monte.

Galileo's military compass

Galileo’s military compass

His work was central to most future developments in science, including those of Newton and Einstein, and most of what he discovered was in contradiction with conventional wisdom—his work was as shocking and revolutionary in the 1600s as Einstein proclaiming that “time is relative” was in the 1900s.

This is typical of the hagiographical hogwash dished up by people writing about Galileo. The only part of Galileo’s work ‘central’ to Newton was the parabolic flight path of projectiles, which was discovered independently by other including Thomas Harriot. His only connection to Einstein is the rejection of Galilean relativity in the theory of the latter. Very little of Galileo’s own work was shocking and the only parts that were in anyway revolutionary were the laws of fall, discovered independently and earlier by Benedetti, and heliocentricity, a field in which Galileo was not the discoverer or inventor but merely the polemicist, who probably did more damage than good through his advocacy.

But the most impressive part about Galileo, other than his ability to make such a cranky facial expression in the above painting, is that he did everything he did in the face of threats and repression by the Catholic Church and their inane loathing of ground breaking scientific advancements.

I begin to get the impression that our author has a personal problem with the Catholic Church, which did not have an “inane loathing of ground breaking scientific advancements”, and except in the one case Galileo did nothing in “the face of threats and repression by the Catholic Church” but actually received much support and encouragement from many leading figure in the Church hierarchy for the vast majority of his life and work.

The main thing the Church kept yelling at Galileo for was his backing and advancement of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe, which puts the sun, instead of the Earth, in the center of the solar system and suggests that the Earth’s spinning is why the sun appears to revolve around the Earth. The Church declared heliocentrism to be “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”—in particular, the parts of scripture that said things like, “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved” and “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”—and ordered Galileo “to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing. “That would be like modern-day governments imprisoning geologists who studied ancient rocks because their findings conflicted with the Bible’s accounts of the Great Flood. Or like preventing gay people from getting married because of passages in the Bible about sexual orientation. Thankfully, those times are over.

The above paragraph contains the real reason that Mr Urban is frothing at the mouth about the Catholic Church, Galileo’s clash with the Church on heliocentricity. Once again I’m not going to go into great detail about the whole sad sorry affair but will for the umpteenth time repeat that the central problem had very little to do with science, astronomy, cosmology or whatever but with the fact that in 1615 Galileo tried to tell the Church how to interpret the Bible. If he had not done this and instead bided his time patiently, as suggested by his friends, including Cardinal Maffeo Barberini the later Pope Urban VIII, the Church would in its own time almost certainly have adopted heliocentricity. Instead of which through Galileo’s pig-headedness the acceptance of heliocentricity by the Catholic Church was delayed by about one hundred and fifty years.

So the Church repressed the greatest genius of the century,

There’s no such thing as the greatest!

… finding him “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life. Luckily, Galileo just hung out on his couch and kept doing his thing, publishing some of his most important works while under house arrest.

I know Galileo fans and militant atheists don’t like to hear this but, for the ‘crime’ of which he was found guilty, Galileo was treated very, very gently and his sentence was very mild.

Other things:

  • Galileo never married, having all three of his children out of wedlock with the same woman.
  • We got something right!
  • One of the reasons Galileo started inventing things (like the telescope) in the first place was that he badly needed money to deal with all the money his starving artist little brother kept “borrowing” from him.
  • Like many Renaissance mathematicians Galileo supplemented his income by designing, manufacturing and selling scientific instruments. He didn’t invent the telescope! Galileo was notoriously always short of money not because he supported his little brother financially, which he did, but because he enjoyed the good life and tended to live beyond his means.
  • He was briefly a professor at the University of Pisa, but he was inappropriate with his students and the university didn’t renew his contract.
  • The second part of the above sentence is a pure fabrication. Galileo was professor of mathematics in Pisa from 1589 till 1592 when he applied for and received the more prestigious and better-paid professorship for mathematics in Padua where he remained until 1610.
  • Despite his conflicts with the Church, Galileo was a devout Catholic. He briefly became a priest before his father convinced him to go into medicine, and his two daughters were nuns. But he was critical of the Church’s repression of science, stating, “Holy Writ was intended to teach men how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.”
  • That Galileo was a devout Catholic is a standard claim in the history of science repeated, I think, to make the Church look worse for their persecution of the man. This claim has been strongly challenged by Renaissance historian; David Wootton in his biography “Galileo: Watcher of the Skies” (Yale University Press, 2010), which paints Galileo convincingly as a very lax Catholic and possibly an unbeliever. Galileo was never a priest but did spend a few months in a monastery as a teenage novice, although he never took holy orders. Galileo’s two daughters were placed in a monastery because, being illegitimate, he considered them unmarriageable and also to spare him the cost of their dowries, a standard procedure in that period.
  • One of Galileo’s worst offenses against the Church was creating a character called Simplico in his famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, who always presented the old, incorrect, geocentric view. Simplico suggests “simpleton” in Italian just like it does in English, and in the book, Simplico does not come off very well. The issue is that a lot of what Simplico says in the book were well known to be the direct views of the Pope (Urban VIII), indirectly insulting the Pope and hastening Galileo’s path toward house arrest.
  • The character in the Dialogo who presents the case for geocentricity is called Simplicio not Simplico. The insult of the Pope was much more direct than suggested here. When Urban VIII granted Galileo permission to write a book explaining both geocentricity and heliocentricity, in order to prove that Catholics were not ignorant of the latter theory, he specifically instructed Galileo to include his own theological argument against deciding for one system over the other because this would “limit and restrict the Devine power and wisdom to some particular fancy of my own”. A not unreasonable viewpoint given that there were no proofs for the heliocentric system at that time. Galileo did as instructed including exactly those words in the final speech of Simplicio, the simpleton, on the last page of the book, who had had seven kinds of intellectual shit kicked out of him in the preceding four hundred pages (in the edition I own) by the other two characters. This really reduced Urban’s argument to a joke! Not a smart move, Signore Galilei.
  • It wasn’t until 200 years later in 1835 that the Church finally stopped its prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism and not until 1992 that the Vatican officially cleared Galileo’s name of any wrongdoing.
  • The church allowed the publication of an edition of Galileo’s works, excluding the Dialogo, in 1718 just 76 years after his death. In 1741 a complete edition of his works was authorised by Pope Benedict XIV. The general ban on works advocating heliocentricity was lifted in 1758.
  • It should be noted that Galileo’s church difficulties occurred in the heart of the Renaissance. You can only imagine what it was like to be a scientist in the far more repressive Middle Ages (and how much potential scientific advancement was stifled).
  • We’re back in anti-Church bullshit city! Within the history of science Galileo’s difficulties with the Church, which he largely brought down on his own head, remain a largely isolated incident. The Middle Ages were by no means more repressive than the Renaissance and in fact much scientific progress was made during the Middle Ages, following the re-establishment of an urban culture around 1000 CE. Also it should be noted that the majority of that progress was made by members of the Catholic Church. Galileo was very much aware of the work of his medieval predecessors and built his own work on the foundations that they had constructed.
  • Some weirdo cut the middle finger off of Galileo’s corpse a century after his death, and it is currently on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence.
  • He got something right again!
  • Galileo’s dad begrudgingly allowed him to leave medicine in favor of mathematics and died a few years later when Galileo was an amateur math professor—he had no idea his son was anything special, let alone “the Father of Modern Science.”
  • It is true that Vincenzo Galilei was not particularly enthusiastic when his son abandoned his medical studies, however Galileo was never an “amateur math professor” but a fully paid professional. On the “Father of Modern Science”, see above.

2014 equivalent: Elon Musk

I find the concept of Elon Musk being the 2014 equivalent of Galileo Galilei quite simply mindboggling!

Mr Urban your term paper does not meet the required standards. Your research is to put it mildly very sloppy and personal prejudice is not a substitute for scholarly endeavour, therefore I cannot award you anything but an F!


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

20 responses to “How much can you get wrong in an eight hundred word biographical sketch of a very famous sixteenth and seventeenth-century mathematicus and philosophicus? – One helluva lot it seems?

  1. Congratulations to Tim Urban who gets it even worse than Stephen Hawking in his introduction to Galileo Galilei in “On the shoulders of Giants” with its focus on conflict with the Catholic Church.

    • I should say something more about “On the Shoulders of Giants”. In the introduction to Copernicus Hawking portrays Giordano Bruno as an Italian scientist and avowed Copernican. Not many historians, if any, count him as a scientist, but here he is portrayed as one who suffered the burning on the stake for his scientific views.

      Therefore, Tony, it would be very interesting to see a blog post from you on Hawking’s introductions to Copernicus and Galileo, and even Newton and Einstein too.

  2. Just to be fair, I think somebody should point out two things in Galileo’s favor:

    1. The kid could really write.

    2. His skill at PR was so great that four centuries later people are still buying his schtick.

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  4. This won’t do
    “Instead of which through Galileo’s pig-headedness the acceptance of heliocentricity by the Catholic Church was delayed by about one hundred and fifty years.”
    Whether or not Galileo acted pig-headedly, it is simple ridiculous to blame a 150 year delay on him. The Catholic Church was and is an organisation full of knowledgeable scientists. If it can blame one individual acting pig-headedly for its own inability to recognise heliocentricity some serious introspection is needed. I suspect that many in the Catholic Church would reject your “reason” here which is, in any case, unscientific speculation.

    • This is history and not science and history always contains a level of speculation that is higher than that to be found in science, which contrary to popular opinion is far from free of speculation.

      In this case the speculation is I think highly permissible and I’m more than prepared to defend and explicate it. However it is too complex to deal with in a comment so I shall write a post on exactly this theme. This might take some time as I’m on holiday next week but it will be my next substantial post in my heliocentricity Rough Guide series.

      • I trust the post doesn’t just deal with the narrow question in the comment (delay of official acceptance by the Catholic church), but the impact on the progress of astronomy?

      • Yes it will but I’ve already addressed this point in an earlier post.

      • Wow, quite a lot of comments to that post! Is that a record for RM?

        A very interesting post, but it concentrates mainly on the Index. Important, of course. I was thinking though about Thomas F. Mayer’s suggestion, in the intro to The Trial of Galileo, 1612–1633, that hobbling the Collegio Romano may have been the most unfortunate consequence of the Galileo affair. (The passage used to be available in Google Books, but those pages are now omitted from the preview to Mayer’s book.)

  5. schlafly

    Not aware of “major discoveries about the motion of planets and stars”? Galileo did discover the moons of Jupiter and published a nice analysis of them.

    • Walter Hehl

      Time was mature to use telescopes for celestial observations: simple telescopes were avalaible already 1 – 2 years earlier from Dutch opticians on the market. The British Thomas Harriot observed the moon and the moons of Jupiter a couple of months earlier than Galilei, the German Simon Marius at about the same time. Both made better maps and observations than Galileo. Worst: Galileo was not understanding Kepler’s work but was still thinking in circles. It is a good description to see him as the inventor of Science PR …
      One big defeat for him in this function: the names of the Jupiter moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are from Simon Marius.

  6. Nice article! I am always appreciative of the historically conscious, especially when it comes to the history of science on the internet! Your likening of the legends concerning the Great Men of science to the hagiographies of yore is most refreshing indeed!

    Watching atheists spout off about reason and science whilst simultaneously burning religious people at the metaphorical stake without so much as a nod to historical context or human empathy, to say nothing of the zealousness to which they adhere to scientific theories, makes me a sad panda indeed. At least Catholics have an excuse for their certitudes, what with their belief in the revelation of the Bible. Self-described scientists do not; and yet somehow zealotry seems more comfortable to the human condition than does skepticism…

    Can’t we all be a little bit more like Erasmus; not perfect, not heroic, not saints, just men who at least try and give others a fair shot, wouldn’t that be something?

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