Galileo Super Star – Galileo Galilei to get Hollywood biopic

My attention was drawn recently to a Hollywood gossip website that announced that a movie is to be made of a play by Richard Goodwin about Galileo, The Hinge of the World. I must admit that my curiosity was piqued, not least because I had never heard of either Mr Goodwin or his play and I naturally wondered what his line on the Tuscan mathematicus would be. It turns out that Richard Goodwin is a former high power Washington political advisor and speechwriter who served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as well as JFK’s brother Robert, not exactly the best qualifications for the author of a play about the history of science. My doubts about this particular production were only heightened upon reading the full original title of the play, The Hinge of the World: In Which Professor Galileo Galilei, Chief Mathematician and Philosopher to His Serene Highness the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and His Holiness Urban VIII, Bishop of Rome, Battle for the Soul of the World. This title does not bode well for a historically accurate account of Galileo’s clash with the Catholic Church. However I will reserve judgement, because as I say, I do not know the play. I have however ordered a second hand copy that is at this very moment wending its way from some distant land to my humble abode and when it arrives and I have perused it with due diligence, I will report back with a critical assessment.

A scene from the stage production of The Hinge of the World

A scene from the stage production of The Hinge of the World

The website report does however offer a précis of the contents of the soon to be film and this is possibly the most confused and inaccurate presentation of the affair and the events leading up to it that I have read in a very long time:

The film will stay true to the spirit of the play in that it will revolve around the one-time friends whose vehement disagreements led to the Church calling Galileo out for heresy when science started to challenge long-held beliefs.

Science had been challenging long held beliefs long before Galileo came along. Apart from anything else Galileo was tried for defending the truth of Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis and Copernicus had died twenty-one years before Galileo was born. Just for the record Copernicus was also by no means the first person to present science that challenged the Church’s long-held beliefs.

Just to be a little bit pedantic, the one-time friends, Galileo and Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) only had one vehement disagreement.

During that time, around 1610, the Church was never questioned,…

Somebody really ought to have consulted a historian of the Catholic Church. People both inside and outside of the Church questioned it continuous, some with impunity, for example Galileo’s friend Paolo Sarpi, and some with dire consequences, such as Giordano Bruno.

…yet Galileo who had a passion, curiosity and a telescope started to question everything after logging what he was learning through his scientific research. He published much of his findings in a book that were disavowed by Pope Urban VIII and the Catholic Church. Despite delving into dangerous territory, Galileo continued his research into comets, tide movements until he was ultimately ordered by the Church to stop teaching his ideas.

 The above is just a historical train wreck. The book of Galileo’s disavowed by Urban VII and the Church was the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, which led directly to his trail and imprisonment in 1633. However, he was told to stop teaching the truth of the heliocentric hypothesis and only that, the rest of his ideas were not the subject of Church condemnation, in 1616 following the semi-public distribution of the so-called Letter to Castelli, much later published in expanded form, as the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. Also in 1616 Paul V was Pope and Maffeo Barberini was a mere Cardinal and still a good friend of Galileo’s.

 The brilliant scientist, engineer, physicist and mathematician who helped discover the law of the pendulum (which became the basis for modern-day clocks), who pushed scientists to conduct experiments to prove theorems, who continued the work of Nicolaus Copernicus to help understand our own universe and laid the groundwork for modern astronomy eventually lost his battle with the powerful Roman Catholic Church.

Again being somewhat pedantic, Galileo got the law of the pendulum wrong and modern day clocks stopped being pendulum driven some time ago. Also, and this is not so pedantic, it was Kepler, and not Galileo, who laid the groundwork for modern astronomy.

 He was tried for heresy and sentenced to imprisonment at the age of 68 where he would remain until his death nine years later at age 77.

A final point, that people love to forget because it rather spoils the image of Galileo the martyr, his sentence of imprisonment imposed for vehement suspicion of heresy, not heresy, was instantly commuted to house arrest, which whilst somewhat restrictive was by no means harsh.


All of this ties in rather nicely with an exchange that I took part in yesterday evening on twitter. Tim Skellet (@Gurdur) asked me and others, “what’s the very best, most comprehensive bio of Galileo, please?” My answer was, “I don’t think it exists. Read several: Wootton, Heilbron, Biagioli, Shea/Artigas.” I was not trying to be clever or awkward. I genuinely believe that if you wish to study any major figure out of the history of science then you should consult multiple sources, as all sources have their advantages and disadvantages. History is, to a large extent, a game of interpretation. There are facts but they only give a partial picture and it is the role or responsibility of the historian to complete that picture to the best of their ability. All historians have agendas and biases and to obtain a rounded picture it is always advisable to view the facts through the eyes of more than one historian.

Turning to the special case of Galileo, the two most recent complete biographies are J. L. Heilbron’s Galileo (OUP, 2010) and David Wootton’s Galileo: Watcher of the Skies (Yale University Press, 2010). Both are very good but differ in their interpretations and emphases. I wouldn’t recommend one over the other, so if you only want to read one then toss a coin or something. If you really want to get to grips with Galileo then read both. One important aspect of Wootton’s book is that he systematically dismantles the myth that Galileo was a good devout Catholic. This myth is trotted out regularly to make the Church look even worse for having persecuted him. Wootton demonstrates, I think convincingly, that Galileo was at best an indifferent Catholic and in no way the devout son of the Church that historical myth has made him out to be.

Although not a complete biography in the traditional sense I would also strongly recommend Mario Biagioli’s Galileo Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism (University of Chicago Press, 1993) Biagioli examines Galileo the social climber who uses his scientific discoveries to further his social status rather than for any idealistic belief in truth. Biagioli’s work is a useful complement to the more conventional scientific style of biography; what did Galileo discover and when. In what is effectively a second volume to his first book, Galileo’s Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy (University of Chicago Press, 2006), Biagioli explains how Galileo used the telescopes that he manufactured and the images that he produced to broker social advantages.

William R. Shea’s and Mariano Artigas’ Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius (OUP; 2003) just deals with the six extended visits that Galileo made to Rome, the home-base of the Church and the centre of political and social power in the period, during his lifetime. These include, his triumphal visit in 1611, as the author of his sensational Sidereus Nuncius, his visit in 1615-1616 and his failed attempt to prevent the Church condemning heliocentricity and finally his summons to his trial in 1633. By concentrating only on Galileo’s interactions with the Roman culture of the period the authors succeed in shedding light from a different angle on Galileo’s fateful path to his condemnation and fall.

At some point David Wootton joined the Twitter discussion and he recommended Pietro Redondi’s Galileo Heretic (Princeton University Press, 1992), a recommendation that I would one hundred pro cent endorse. Although Redondi’s central thesis, that Galileo was actually attacked by the Church for his atomism has, in the meantime, been largely refuted this is a superb book and still very much worth reading by anyone who wishes to learn about Galileo and the culture in which he lived and worked.

If you read all of the books that I have recommended above you should, by the time you have finished, have a fairly good all round picture of the life and work of Galileo Galilei and the footnotes and bibliographies will have given you lots of information for further reading. I will however close with a warning, do not read Michael White’s Galileo Antichrist: a Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007). I can deliver a comprehensive and profound review of White’s book in three words, “It is crap!”



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

18 responses to “Galileo Super Star – Galileo Galilei to get Hollywood biopic

  1. Too bad it’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber … that would be Super …

  2. not exactly the best qualifications for the author of a play about the history of science

    Ah, but is it really intended to be about the history of science — any more, say, than Brecht’s Galileo?

    Let me pose a more general question, intended genuinely: is there any film (or play) you can recommend about some aspect of the history of science, that “gets it right”? Historically, that is.

    (Of course, one doesn’t alway care about historical accuracy. I enjoyed Amenábar’s Agora, even though it recycled almost every myth there is about Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria, and added a new one for good measure.)

  3. Tim O'Neill

    Oh God. And just as Amenábar’s Agora made every New Atheist keyboard warrior an expert on Hypatia and the Great Library of Alexandria, so now this new crap will reinforce all the Galileo myths, yet again.

    • Every title card saying “Based on a True Story” should be replaced with the one from American Hustle: “Some of this actually happened.”

      Anyone learning their history from Hollywood gets what they deserve.

      Historical myths will disappear about the same time as all mosquitos vanish from the face of the earth.

  4. Again being somewhat pedantic, Galileo got the law of the pendulum wrong and modern day clocks stopped being pendulum driven some time ago. Also, and this is not so pedantic, it was Kepler, and not Galileo, who laid the groundwork for modern astronomy.

    With tongue only partly in cheek, I would say that Ptolemy laid the groundwork for modern astronomy.

    Galileo famously claimed that the period of the pendulum was independent of the amplitude of the swing. He also noted that the period was inversely proportional to the square root of the length of string, and (if memory serves) independent of the weight of the bob.

    Assuming this is all for an “ideal pendulum” (no friction, weightless string, etc.), the 1st statement is wrong, but the 2nd and 3rd are correct.

    Galileo qualifies the 1st statement (but not the 2nd), in the Dialog: “very little different — almost imperceptible”. That doesn’t really give him a pass, though, since the difference is quite obvious for large swings, and Galileo refers to swings from 1 degree up to 90.

  5. laura

    Heilbron’s Galileo bio is what got me interested in the history of 17th century science in the first place. It’s a beautifully written book though I know some people take issue with the arch style.

    • Good as his Galileo is, his The Sun in the Church beats it by an astronomical unit.

      • That I agree with; The Sun in the Church is a masterpiece.

      • laura

        Yes, both in my top 10 or so favorites. Sun has the advantage of being one of the few serious books on technical astronomy in the mid 17th century a topic even good general histories (I’m thinking speciifically of hf cohen recent survey book which I just read) handle badly,

  6. L

    Yikes, bracing myself for the predictable disaster!

    With a bit of a contrarian motivation, I must say that my dream instead would be a short series on Galileo with Hugh Laurie, who’d have to play him as much of a smartass jerk as his Dr. House. 😀

  7. I thought after your concise review of Michael White’s biography, I should look at someone else’s. It is actually quite hard to find one by any reputable reviewer and when I found that The Guardian had got Simon Callow (yes, that Simon Callow, the actor) to review it; he takes over 1200 words to fail to achieve what you managed with three; I knew the worst.

  8. Richard Goodwin is the husband of the presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. I saw the work as a staged reading when it was a script with the title “Two Men of Florence,” advertised with the teaser “this play grapples with the battle between discovery and faith.” The reading itself was wonderful. The history was cringe-worthy.

  9. DanS

    I found Finocchiaro’s “Retrying Galileo” very interesting. It examines the aftermath of the Galileo affair including many of the myths.

  10. There is history, damned history and then there is Hollywood.

  11. The Roman church wasn’t the enemy of science in the early 17th Century, but it was a pretty scary operation. Imagine a serious movie that told the story of the Curia’s attempts to silence Paolo Sarpi, the Venetian priest and intellectual who championed his city’s independence from papal control and wrote a famous expose of the politics of the Council of Trent—he survived two Vatican-sponsored assassination attempts, though after the second try he was left for dead with three stiletto wounds. Or, if you really wanted to cause trouble, you could make a major movie about the Gun Powder plot, the 9/11 of the day, in which a group of Catholic dissidents came whisper close to destroying the entire ruling establishment of England in an attack which would have been the equivalent of killing everyone at the State of the Union address. What I’m envisaging would not be a hatchet job. There are rather more than two sides to these stories. For example, very few English Catholics were terrorists like Guy Fawkes even though they were under persecution by the state. The aim would be show what happened and let the participants explain their own motives. An objective retelling of the events would be more hair raising than any piece of propaganda.

    I dream, of course. An insightful depiction of the desperate ideological/religious struggles of this period would be an amazing feat of movie making. It isn’t just the history of science that’s hard to film. It’s history of any kind. Heck, it’s hard enough to write about it.

  12. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #43 | Whewell's Ghost

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