The specialist in causing pain.

I suppose I ought to rebrand Galileo Galilei as ‘The Gift that keeps on Giving”! The comment is of course directed at all the idiots who think they need to present their image of Galileo to the world, rather than at the 16th- and 17th-century Tuscan artist-engineer himself. As long as there is a GG Super Star I will never be short of material for this blog, although it might become a little bit monotone with time. The most recent offender is Michael Vagg on The Conversation in an article entitled Four things we should teach every kid about Galileo. Before looking at Mr Vagg’s contribution to the Galileo debate I want to waste a few words on The Conversation, which describes itself as follows:

The Conversation is a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary that’s free to read and republish.

Its banner head also has the subtitle “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”. Apparently, at least judging by Mr Vagg’s article, this proud boast doesn’t apply when it comes to the history of science.

Mr Vagg, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist at Barwon Health, apparently recently attended a conference in Florence and took time out to visit the Museo Galileo, a laudable way to spend his free time. He tells us he bought three books from the gift shop one of which was Galileo: Antichrist, which he describes, a serious scholarly attempt to look behind the obvious motives for his trial and punishment by the Church to some of the contemporary nuances, going on to say that he highly recommend[s] it, if you’re a Galileo freak and historical conspiracy theory enthusiast like me. Unfortunately Mr Vagg is mistaken in his assessment of this book. Of all the more recent publication about Galileo, provoked by the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, Galileo: Antichrist is one of the worst. A popular biography written by Michael White it turns back the clock by about two hundred years and presents a vision of Galileo’s life and work that would be comfortably at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century, full of myths and distortion and not to be recommended to anybody who serious wants to know the historical truth about Galileo Galilei. Mr Vagg seems to have largely based his “four truths” on Whites totally distorted view of Galileo and his achievements.

His first “truth is entitled “He got rid of Aristotle from science” and I reproduce the whole of his section to this theme, which is to put it mildly horrendous. His first paragraph reads as follows:

Before Galileo, science (known then as natural philosophy) was based almost entirely on the writings of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas enshrined a huge amount of Aristotle’s teachings about the natural world as Church-approved dogma without any empirical basis. Until the Renaissance, virtually nobody in Europe or anywhere else apart from Arabic geniuses like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd advanced science by paying attention to the real world. They just looked up what Aristotle had to say and left it at that, even if what they observed was at odds with what they read.

One of my favourite historians of medieval science, David C Lindberg, died a couple of weeks ago and he would be spinning in his grave if he knew of this travesty of his disciple, which reads like something from the beginning of the nineteenth century or even from the Renaissance. It was Renaissance scholars who were initially responsible for this wholly false picture of medieval science. They created the myth that the golden age of antiquity created a cornucopia of knowledge that got lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire and that they were responsible for the rebirth (renaissance) of this knowledge, freeing Europe from the dark ignorance of the intervening period, which they termed the Middle Ages. This myth was perpetuated right up into the nineteenth century, when the French physicist and historian of science, Pierre Duhem, became the first person to challenge it. Throughout the twentieth century a series of brilliant historians of science, including such people as Marshall Clagett, Alistair Crombie, John Murdoch, Edward Grant, the afore mentioned David Lindberg and others, completely dismantled this myth showing that European medieval scholars made significant contribution to the evolution of science; contribution on which people such as Galileo built their own contributions.

To give one example that is very relevant to Galileo and his theories of motion called revolutionary by Vagg. Even Aristotle was aware of the fact that his laws of motion were anything but satisfactory and the first person to subject them to serious scrutiny was John Philoponus in the sixth century CE, who developed the impetus theory, which was developed further by Arabic scholars in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and by Buridan in Europe in the fourteenth century. Galileo well aware of this work adopted the impetus theory early in his own work on kinetics before moving on to an incorrect form of the theory of inertia. (Galileo still considered natural motion to be circular, not linear, an Aristotelian concept!) In the fourteenth century the so-called Oxford Calculatores of Merton College developed the mathematical mean speed theory, which is to all intents and purposes Galileo’s law of fall. One of the so-called Paris physicists Nicolas Oresme produced a geometrical proof of this theory, in the form of a graph, which is identical to the proof given by Galileo for his law of fall in his Discorsi more than three hundred and fifty years later. It was also the invention of spectacles in the late thirteenth century that would eventually lead to the invention of the telescope, the instrument that would make Galileo famous. Far from being scientifically sterile the Middle Ages was the very fertile seed bed in which Galileo’s own scientific ideas grew to maturity.

In his second paragraph in this section Vagg dished up the following:

Galileo did more than anyone else to rid natural philosophy of its reliance on the authority of Aristotle, replacing it with an empirical and mathematical method. Deciding scientific knowledge by scholarly argument rather than doing experiments seems bizarre to us now. Galileo showed again and again that mathematical models could yield results that were reproducible by anyone else and disproved Aristotle’s observations. Eventually, the successes of the new way of doing natural philosophy were too overwhelming to ignore. The Aristotelians slunk off to find other occupations. Galileo showed irrefutably that you couldn’t do science by magisterial authority alone. Your results had to stand up to scrutiny in the real world.

As I explained in an earlier post, that earned me my reputation as a Galileo deflator, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Harriot, Christoph Scheiner, William Gilbert, Christoph Clavius, Francoise Vieta, Isaac Beeckman and Simon Stevin, all roughly contemporaries of Galileo, all did at least as much, and some of them more than, Galileo in establishing the ‘new’ experimental mathematics based science in the early seventeenth century and the myth of Galileo as the great Aristotle slaying champion is one that needs to be firmly stamped on. Also modern history of science has shown that many aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy continued to exercise a strong influence on the development of science well into the seventeenth century long passed the death of Galileo.

Vagg’s second point is actually a very good one and would have been praise worthy if he hadn’t gone on to spoil it in the detail. His title is, “He was not the prototype of a misunderstood lone genius”. This is very correct and in fact the misunderstood lone genius is not only a myth but also a chimera, there has never been one. This is in fact an important point that should indeed be taught to every school kid as part of their science courses, however Vagg goes on to spoil it by presenting a totally mythical picture of Galileo.

Galileo was very much not a lone genius. He relied on Guidobaldo del Monte and Christopher Clavius to get both of his jobs as professor of mathematics and early in his career he relied on the transcript of the lectures from the Collegio Romano to deliver his own lectures. As a young researcher he spend long periods brainstorming with del Monte and Paolo Sarpi over a wide range of topics. Sometimes it is not possible to tell if the ideas he made public really were his own or ones borrowed from one or other of those intellectual partners. For his telescope and instrument making he employed and relied heavily on a technician, who usually doesn’t get the credit he deserves. For his excursions into applied science and technology in the arsenal in Venice he relied heavily on the guidance of master ship builders. Later in life following his overnight fame he relied on his fellow members of the Accademia dei Licei as sounding boards for his ideas and those lynx-eyed friends also prepared his works for publication and published them. Even after his fall, under house arrest, Galileo had students and his son helping with his scientific work. Galileo was for most of his life part of a network of like-minded friends and assistants, however this is not the story that Vagg presents.

When he published the Starry Messenger to announce his discovery of the moons of Jupiter with his new telescope, he not only sent out copies of his books to his colleagues, but also sent them better telescopes than the ones they had!

I suggest Vagg should read Mario Biagioli’s Galileo Courtier and Galileo’s Instruments of Credit. Galileo did not send copies of the Sidereus Nuncius or telescopes to his colleagues; he sent them to civil and religious potentates who could help him in his ambitions to climb the social greasy pole. Despite requests for a telescope Kepler had to wait till a passing aristocrat graciously let him borrow one for a couple of hours to see the new astronomical discoveries. Galileo ignored Kepler’s friendly collegial overtures until he, Kepler, became the only person to support without confirmation those discoveries, publishing Kepler’s letter without his knowledge or permission. Later he ridiculed Kepler’s groundbreaking book on the optics of the telescope as unreadable. He ignored Kepler’s work on heliocentricity when writing the Dialogo, despite the fact that it was the best available on the subject, whilst ridiculing Tycho’s work. When he and Scheiner both discovered the sunspots he accused Scheiner, unjustifiably, of plagiarism and then published some of Scheiner’s results in the Dialogo as his own. In the dispute over the nature of comets with Grassi he viciously attacked Grassi exposing him to public ridicule with malicious polemic, although scientifically Grassi was right and he, Galileo, was wrong. As he and Marius both independently discovered the moons of Jupiter he accused Marius of plagiarism, a charge that stuck ruining Marius’ reputation until it was restored at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This is the man who Vagg claims was “a practising believer in developing a scientific consensus”. Galileo did not believe in scientific consensus, he was a man with a monstrous ego who was right and anybody who disagreed with him got mauled viciously for his troubles. Vagg writes rather pathetically:

He was revered in his lifetime by every natural philosopher of note, although some of ones he personally insulted were somewhat grudging in their admiration.

He was justifiably intensely disliked and despised by quite a few natural philosophers of note. Vagg does however point out that Galileo was not perfect:

He could, of course, also be spectacularly wrong. Nobody remembers his views on comets and the causes of tides, which were two of the biggest contemporary scientific controversies he weighed into. It should also be pointed out that these were the two most prominent examples where Galileo was being particularly stubborn in holding out against the prevailing tide of opinion.

A lot of historians of science remember his views on comets and the causes of tides very well indeed.

The title of Vagg’s next section is also correct, “He was genuinely interdisciplinary” but then again so were all his contemporaries, our concept of the single disciple specialist or expert didn’t exist in the Renaissance. However in his description of Galileo’s multifarious activities Vagg makes several serious blunders. He tells us:

While his astronomical work may seem like it had no practical applications, it led him to develop a way of measuring longitude at sea that was not surpassed until more than 150 years later.

Galileo did conceive a method of using the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter by the planet, as they orbited it, as a clock with which to determine longitude. However, he never succeeded in determining the orbits accurately enough for this purpose, a task first completed by Cassini many decades later. Also more importantly, although this method could be and was used successfully on land, for cartographical purposes, it could never be used at sea, a ship being far too unstable to make the necessary highly accurate astronomical telescopic observations. It is of historical interest that the chronometer method and the lunar distance method of determining longitude, which were the methods that would eventually solve the problem, were both proposed long before Galileo was even born. Next up we get informed that:

He translated his knowledge of the abstract mathematical minutiae of optics into building much better telescopes than anyone else had. He extended this theory to conceive and design the microscope as well.

With the exception of Yaakov Zik, almost all historians of the telescope think that Galileo had very little knowledge of geometrical optics and in fact used his skills as an instrument maker to develop his telescopes by simple trial and error. Although no single inventor of the microscope is known to us, as I’ve already written in an earlier post, Galileo was almost certainly one of the inventors of the microscope an instrument that he, according to his own testimony, discovered by accident when he put one of his telescopes to his eye the wrong way round. He then improved on this accidental discovery, again not by using the theory of geometrical optics, but by trial and error.

The military compass described by Vagg was in fact invented by del Monte and only manufactured and sold along with instruction courses in its use by Galileo as an additional source of income. Vagg closes out this section with a final error:

In the final year of his life, having gone totally blind, Galileo conceived and dictated the design for a clock escapement which was very similar to the one used by Huygens to construct the first pendulum clock a couple of decades later.

The pendulum clock escapement conceived by Galileo but never really realised was substantially different to the one developed by Huygens decades later.

Vagg’s fourth point worthy of the attention of school kids is, “He stood up for the philosophy of science”. Whilst this statement does contain more than a grain of truth Vagg again succeeds in on presenting a largely false historical picture to illustrate it.

Despite using maths that is now taught in high school and equipment that would embarrass a 21st century toy shop owner, Galileo utterly changed the way his contemporaries saw themselves in the universe. Educated citizens of his time had a sophisticated explanation of the world and the heavens, but it was based on dogma and supposition to a degree that is very hard to comprehend today. By making arguments that were based on reasoning, mathematics and experimental verification, he was consistently and obviously successful with many of his predictions. This opened his contemporaries’ eyes to the extraordinary possibilities on offer with knowledge gained by the scientific method.

This paragraph contains a complete misrepresentation of the general state of science at the time of Galileo. Those things that Vagg praises Galileo for had been gaining ground strongly throughout European science for more than a century before Galileo made any contributions to the topic at all. Since the High Middle Ages people had been making contributions to science based on reasoning, mathematics and experimental verification. Galileo made an important contribution to this trend but he didn’t start it. It should also not be forgotten that Galileo used this methodology when it suited him but also resorted to polemic and brow beating when it suited him better. His dispute with Grassi on the nature of comets is a good example of this behaviour.

Observing that Venus had phases like the moon, and having plotted the orbits of the Galilean satellites meticulously, he could join the dots conceptually, and followed the chain of reasoning to the end. The results were not what he was originally looking to discover, but he just couldn’t turn his back on his data. Earth was demoted from the fixed centre of the medieval universe to just another planet orbiting the sun. He strenuously sought ways to avoid provoking the Church (he was a devout believer right to the end) but he could not stop progressing and disseminating his research, despite those who told him it was safer to pull his head in.

Maybe I’m misreading this but it appears to me that Vagg is implying that Galileo initiated the heliocentric model of the cosmos, has he never heard of Copernicus or Kepler? Also, as I’ve written in detail in other posts, the telescopic discoveries made by Galileo, Scheiner, Marius, Harriot and others, whilst refuting a pure Ptolemaic geocentric model, were a long way from confirming a heliocentric model and were also conform with various Tychonic and semi-Tychonic models. These facts alone constitute an important lesson in how science evolves.

“He strenuously sought ways to avoid provoking the Church” is another mythical statement from Vagg. One of Galileo’s major problems was that his mega ego prevented him from seeing when he was provoking those that he attacked, mocked, contradicted. Convinced of his own innate superiority he just blundered from one provocation to the next. A seemingly trivial point, but actually not so trivial, is the claim “he was a devout believer right to the end” this, or something similar is a standard part, of the Galileo mythology trotted out by almost everyone who has put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to write about the man. However, David Wootton in his biography, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, a genuinely ‘serious scholarly’ book, argues very convincingly that far from being the devout Catholic of popular science literature, Galileo was in fact a very lax Catholic. This of course rather spoils the common plaint, ‘he was a true believer and still they punished him’ of the ‘Galileo was a martyr for science’ fan club.

He insisted that dependable, reproducible scientific results should trump religious dogma or non-empirical philosophical ideas any day of the week. He paid a price for his abrasiveness, but he should not be remembered just for the events that blighted his later years. His persecution and house arrest by the Vatican were not inevitable, but threw into sharp focus the clash of his era between a recognisably modern science-based worldview and the medieval superstition of authoritarian belief systems. Somebody had to be the first to point out the Emperor’s new clothes.

The last couple of lines of the previous paragraph and this one refer, of course, to the publication of Galileo’s Dialogo and his subsequent trial by the Inquisition of Rome. Unfortunately Galileo’s masterpiece didn’t rely on ‘dependable, reproducible scientific results’ because they didn’t exist for the heliocentric theory, instead he used polemic and sleight of hand to confuse, bamboozle and confound his opponents hoping that nobody would notice how thin his scientific arguments actually were. The whole book was of course structured around the fourth and final section, Galileo’s theory of the tides, (which Vagg so casually swept aside above) that he, in a strange fit of blind arrogance, believed to be the missing empirical proof that the earth moved, the lack of such proof being the strongest scientific argument against the heliocentric hypothesis. Originally Galileo wanted to give the whole book the title Theory of the Tides but the Church censor wouldn’t permit it, so he chose the title that has gone down in history instead. Galileo thought that this theory was his all-winning trump, whereas it was in reality a busted flush, as any half thinking person could have told him. Galileo did not write the book in opposition to the Church but with the Pope’s explicit permission. However Urban, not unreasonably, commissioned him to write a book presenting the various cosmological/astronomical models of the cosmos factually and without favour or prejudice. If Galileo had written a book presenting the arguments for and against geocentricity, heliocentricity and helio-geocentricty (he completely ignored the latter, although at the time he wrote it was the model that best fit the known scientific facts) fairly and honestly, we probably wouldn’t waste so much time discussing the conflict between him and the Church because there wouldn’t have been one. Instead he wrote a book, which was an undisguised polemic in favour of heliocentricity hoping nobody would notice the lack of real empirical evidence and finished it off by gratuitously insulting the Pope. Wow really clever GG! The clash between worldviews that Vagg so pathetically evokes at the end of this paragraph exists only in his fantasy and not in the historical reality. The clash between Galileo and Urban was on a very personal level and in no way reflects a general clash between the then theological worldview and, to quote Vagg, a recognisably modern science-based worldview. This supposed clash is a myth created in the nineteenth century that has long been demolished by historians of science but people like Vagg prefer to keep peddling the myths rather than taking the trouble to learn the truth. Possible the worst piece of claptrap in Vagg’s ahistorical article is his closing sentence.

I am however eternally grateful for the effect his life’s work had on the philosophy of science. Development of the Enlightenment values that underpin our society would not have been possible without the seismic burst of rationalism that Galileo unleashed from his villa in Northern Italy 500 years ago.

Wow Mr Vagg, you have set a new high water mark in ahistorical mythical hagiography. At least it will provide employment for lots of historians rewriting all those history books that missed out on GG’s vital role in the Enlightenment. Mr Vagg, pain specialist, your pathetic attempts to write history of science, a subject you very obviously know nothing about, has certainly caused this historian of science a great deal of pain indeed.



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

28 responses to “The specialist in causing pain.

  1. Thony, his name is Vagg, not Vaag… (excellent post btw)

  2. Still, no worries… (can easily be fixed, unlike mr. Vagg’s attitude towards the history of science I’m afraid…)

  3. Once more into the breach dear friends…

  4. Baerista

    “As long as there is a GG Super Star I will never be short of material for this blog, although it might become a little bit monotone with time.”

    Screw monotony, these rants are important (and highly entertaining!)

    • Mike from Ottawa

      I’d echo Baerista and say don’t worry about any monotory for us. These posts are fun and clearly help you with some necessary venting. Speaking only for myself, I find there’s always more that you come up with that’s new to me no matter how many of these GGSS posts I’ve read, probably a measure of the distance between your knowledge and my ignorance.

      I wonder if anyone has researched the origins of that 19th Century myth of GGSS. It smacks of the sort of thing that gave us Columbus supposedly arguing against church men in Spain that the Earth is round.

    • Baerista, is there a reasonable possibility that we will be able to read one of your rants in the near future?

      • Baerista

        At the moment it doesn’t look like it, but maybe something unexpected comes up. Sorry to disappoint you. You may know, however, that I wrote a review of Greenblatt’s “The Swerve” which Thony published on this blog a while back.

  5. jimhexis

    Aristotle is made a villain at the same time Galileo is made a hero, but the both operations involve historical misrepresentations. To the extent that there really was a war of science and theology, it was the Aristotelians who continually found themselves in conflict with the church because the points of difference between what’s actually in Aristotle’s philosophy and Christianity—the eternity of the world, the denial of the immortality of the individual soul, and God’s indifference to particulars and human affairs—were far more sensitive issues to theologians than whether the sun or the Earth is in the middle. More generally, even in the high Middle Ages, traditional theologians distrusted Aristotle precisely because he stood, at least in their eyes, for an unseemly interest in understanding this world for its own sake.

    As you frequently insist and I mostly agree, it’s an anachronism to call anybody a scientist before the last couple of centuries. What the actual Aristotle undertook had some analogies with modern scientific research, however, especially his creation of what amounted to a research institution that undertook detailed empirical studies of a wide range of natural and cultural phenomena. The Historia Animalium may not be biology, but it’s a hell of a lot more like biology than whatever Pliny was doing in his Natural History. And collecting the constitutions of over a hundred Greek city states was not the occupation of somebody who didn’t want to look and see.

  6. I guess this is the Bertolt Brecht socialist utopia historical method coming back like a bad threepenny yet again. As far as the issue of the lone genius like Athena eructing from the head of Zeus, notice the revolutionary work of Nicolas of Cusa in the context of his membership of the Brethren of the Common Life, for instance.

  7. laura

    “Before Galileo, science (known then as natural philosophy) was based almost entirely on the writings of Aristotle.”

    Um… Stoicism? Neo-Platonism? Atomism? It’s not just the Middle Ages that get neglected in articles like this but it’s like the sixteenth century just didn’t happen. What about the whole tradition of natural magic? Ironic too that the only pre-Galilean thinkers the author considers worth a mention are the medieval Arab philosophers, all of whom were extremely Aristotelian…

    • laura

      The Galileo/Enlightenment stuff is really funny too. I just did some reading / discussing of this subject with some histsci friends last month. It seems to me that Galileo’s star was fairly dim in the 18th century. Newton was the real star of science, the mythologized bringer of light, with Descartes and to a lesser extent Kepler being the illustrious forerunners. It seems like Galileo emerges as the star of the new science in the 19th century (for whatever reasons), but he didn’t mean too much to most major Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire who barely mentions him.

      • As always several excellent points in your comments. I think most people don’t realise that Galileo effectively disappeared from the scientific scene with his death and only emerged as the ‘hero’ of modern science at the end of the eighteenth century.
        The Enlightenment is actually a thing of the philosophers rather than the scientists with John Locke, a Newtonian, very much leading the pack and Kant, a Newtonian, bringing up the rear.

    • laura

      I’d love to see a post on this topic if you’re ever in the mood to write one.

  8. Pingback: These go up to 11 – Stoat

  9. Jeb

    “One of my favourite historians of medieval science, David C Lindberg, died a couple of weeks ago.”

    Was not aware of that. A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of his translation and notes of Perspectiva communis, my introduction to David C Lindberg. Its a joy to be reading it, wonderful book.

  10. “Despite using maths that is now taught in high school and equipment that would embarrass a 21st century toy shop owner”

    This statement itself is an embarrassment.

    “Galileo showed again and again that mathematical models could yield results that were reproducible by anyone else and disproved Aristotle’s observations.”

    How do you disprove someone’s observations? And to say that Galileo replaced Aristotle with empiricism is just plain wrong. A new kind of empiricism, perhaps, but Aristotle was quite clearly an empiricist, as a modicum of reading about him would attest.

    What rubbish…

  11. “Mr Vagg, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist at Barwon Health, apparently recently attended a conference in Florence…”

    A bit of a dent to my home town pride. Both Deakin Uni and Barwon Health are located in my home town of Geelong, 80km west of Melbourne. Hopefully he is good at pain relief.

    And I only found out today that David Lindberg had died through James Hannam’s page. Lindberg’s “The Beginnings of Western Science” 2nd Ed. is one of my favorite books.

  12. To be fair, the overall standard of articles in “The Conversation” is well above what you get in the national newspapers, when (unlike Dr Vagg) authors are writing in the areas of their expertise. There are a few authors that are frankly embarrassing in their ignorance and in one case I was moved to suggest that academic rigour should imply pre-publication peer review. In the cases where I have pointed out errors of fact, most authors have been willing to acknowledge the error and correct the article. For readers, caveat emptor should always apply.

    • To demonstrate that the BBC and Open University are not above misrepresentation, see this animation from “A History of Ideas”
      The first section covers Copernicus and Galileo.

      • I could reply that two wrongs don’t make a right. I’m well aware that unfortunately there is bad history of science all over the place and one of the functions of this blog is to draw attention to this fact. Being a quality information or news source, again unfortunately, does not protect from this misery. Over the years I have had occasion to criticise articles in The Guardian, The New York Times, The New York Book Review, The New Yorker, The BBC, Scientific American and many other quality media sources. It is a Sisyphus task but it keeps me off the streets and occupied.

  13. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #32 | Whewell's Ghost

  14. Lucy Hibbs

    I’m replying to your reply to Laurence Cox above. What you are trying to do may be more important than even you realize. Actually, I know for a fact you do know the proper importance. Because if you did, there would be evidence, a history, of periodic strategic alterations to the way you did it. Because knowing the importance is knowing duty.

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