Does the world really need another Galileo hagiography?

When it was first advertised several people drew my attention to Michael E. Hobart’s The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide[1]and it had hardly appeared when others began to ask what I thought about it and whether one should read it? I find it kind of flattering but also kind of scary that people want to know my opinion of a book before committing but even I can’t read a more than 500 page, intellectually dense book at the drop of the proverbial hat. Curiosity peaked piqued I acquired a copy, for a thick bound volume it’s actually quite reasonably priced, and took it with me to America, as my travel book. I will now give my considered opinion of Hobart’s tome and I’m afraid that it’s largely negative.


Hobart’s title says nearly everything about his book and to make sure you know where he is going he spells it out in detail in an 18-page introductory chapter The Rift between Religion and Science, which he attributes to the fact that in the seventeenth century science ceased to be verbal and became numerical. If this should awaken any suspicions in your mind, yes his whole thesis is centred round Galileo’s infamous two books diatribe in Il Saggiatore. As far as I can see the only new thing that Hobart introduces in his book is that he clothes his central thesis in the jargon of information technology, something that I found irritating.

The next 34 pages are devoted to explaining that in antiquity the world was described both philosophically and theologically in words. Moving on, we get a 124-page section dealing with numbers and mathematics entitled, From the “Imagination Mathematical” to the Threshold of Analysis. Here Hobart argues that in antiquity and the Middle Ages numbers were thing numbers, i.e. they were only used in connection with concrete objects and never in an abstract sense simply as numbers for themselves. His presentation suffers from selective confirmation bias of his theory, when talking about the use of numbers in the Middle ages he only examines and quotes the philosophers, ignoring the mathematicians, who very obviously used numbers differently.

He moves on to the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance and outlines what he sees as the liberation of numbers from their thing status through the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic numbers through Leonardo Pisano, the invention of music notation, the introduction of linear perspective in art and the introduction of both Scaliger’s chronology and the Gregorian calendar. Here once again his presentation definitely suffers from selective confirmation bias. He sees both Scaliger and the Gregorian calendar as the first uses of a universal time measuring system for years. Nowhere in his accounts of using numbers or the recording of time in years does he deal with astronomy in antiquity and down to the Early Modern Period. Astronomers used the Babylonian number system, just as abstract as the Hindu-Arabic system, and the Egyptian solar calendar in exactly the same way as Scaliger’s chronology. He also ignores, except somewhere in a brief not much later, the earlier use of the Hindu-Arabic number system in computos.

Here it is worth mentioning a criticism of others that Hobart brings later. In a chapter entitled, Towards the Mathematization of Matter, he briefly discusses Peter Harrison on science and religion and David Wootton on the introduction of a new terminology in the seventeenth century. He goes on to say, “…both of these fine scholars overlook just how the mathematical abstractions born of the new information technology and modern numeracy supplied an alternative to literacy as a means for discerning patterns in nature.” Two things occur to me here, firstly the mathematization of science as the principle driving force behind the so-called scientific revolution is one of the oldest and most discussed explanation of the emergence of modern science, so Hobart is only really offering old wine in new bottles and not the great revolutionary idea that he thinks he has discovered. The second is that in his book, The Invention of Science, David Wootton has a 47-page section entitled The Mathematization of the World, dealing with the changes in the use and perception of mathematics in the Renaissance that is, in my opinion, superior to Hobart’s account.

The third and final part of Hobart’s book is titled Galileo and the Analytical Temper and is a straight up hagiography. This starts with a gushing account of Galileo’s proportional compass or sector, prominent on the book’s cover. In all of his account of how fantastic and significant this instrument is Hobart neglects an important part of its history. He lets the reader assume that this is a Galileo invention, which is far from true. Although in other places Hobart mentions Galileo’s patron and mentor Guidobaldo del Monte he makes no mention of the fact that Galileo’s instrument was a modification and development of any earlier instrument of del Monte’s, which in turn was a modification of an instrument designed and constructed by Fabrizio Mordente.

This sets the tone for Hobart’s Galileo. He invents the scientific method, really? Then we get told, “Then in a dazzling stroke he pointed it [the telescope] skyward. He was not the first to do so, but he was certainly the first to exploit the new telescope, using it to expand beyond normal eyesight and peer into the vastness of space.” No he wasn’t!  Hobart gives us a long discourse on Galileo’s atomism explaining in detail his theory of floating bodies but neglects to point out that Galileo was simply wrong. He is even more crass when discussing Galileo’s theory of the tides in his Dialogo. After a long discourse on how brilliantly-scientific Galileo’s analysis leading to his theory is Hobart calmly informs us, “Galileo’s theory, of course was subsequently proved wrong by Newton…”! Yes, he really did write that! Galileo’s theory of the tides was contradicted by the empirical facts before he even published it and is the biggest example of blind hubris in all of Galileo’s works.

Hobart’s Galileo bias is also displayed in his treatment of Galileo’s conflicts with the Catholic Church and Catholic scientists. After a very good presentation of Galileo’s excellent proof, in his dispute with Scheiner, that the sunspots are on the surface of the sun and not satellites orbiting it. Hobart writes in an endnote, “A committed Aristotelian, Scheiner continued to advance fierce polemics against Galileo, but even he eventually accepted Galileo’s analysis.” In fact Scheiner accepted Galileo’s analysis fairly rapidly and went on to write the definitive work on sunspots. Hobart somehow neglects to mention that Galileo falsely accused Scheiner of plagiarism in his Il Saggiatore and then presented some of Scheiner’s results as his own in his Dialogo. Describing the dispute in 1615/16 Hobart quoting Bellarmino’s Foscarini letter, “I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them, than that what is demonstrated is false”, goes on to say without justification that Bellarmino would not have accepted a scientific proof but only an Aristotelian one. This is, to put it mildly, pure crap. The behaviour of the Jesuit astronomers throughout the seventeenth century proves Hobart clearly wrong.

I’m not even going to bother with Hobart’s presentation of the circumstances surrounding the trial, it suffices to say that it doesn’t really confirm with the known facts.

I also have problems with Hobart’s central thesis, “The Great Rift.” At times he talks about it as if it was some sort of explosive event, as his title would suggest then admits on more than one occasion that it was a very long drawn out gradual process. Although he mentions it in asides he never really addresses the fact that long after Galileo many leading scientists were deeply religious and saw their scientific work as revealing God’s handy work; scientists such as Kepler and Newton who were just as analytical and even more mathematical than Galileo.

Throughout the book I kept getting the feeling that Hobart is simply out of touch with much of the more recent research in the history of science although he has obviously invested an incredible amount of work in his book, which boasts 144-pages of very extensive endnotes quoting a library full of literature. Yes, the mathematization of science played a significant role in the evolution of science. Yes, science and religion have been drifting slowly apart since the Early Modern Period but I don’t think that the mathematization of science is the all-encompassing reason for that separation that Hobart is trying to sell here. No, Galileo did not singlehandedly create modern science as Hobart seem to want us to believe, he was, as I pointed out in a somewhat notorious post several years ago, merely one amongst a crowd of researchers and scholars involved in that process at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. Does Hobart’s book bring anything new to the table? No, I don’t think it does. Should one read it? That is up to the individual but if I had known what was in it before I read it, I wouldn’t have bothered.




[1]Michael E. Hobart, The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide, Harvard University Press, Cambridge & London, 2018



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Does the world really need another Galileo hagiography?

  1. Clive Raymond

    I spotted a problem with the cover. The plumb bob is strung incorrectly, and is hanging askew. As a user of plumb bobs in archaeology, I know I would get an incorrect reading with this.

  2. “Here Hobart argues that in antiquity and the Middle Ages numbers were thing numbers, i.e. they were only used in connection with concrete objects and never in an abstract sense simply as numbers for themselves.”

    Does he address the art of memory at all? Or the numerical symbolism in architecture and possibly bladesmithing? Audiences were expected to hear a sermon or read a fencing manual, observe the numerical structure (twelve parts each divided into five smaller parts, …) and store it in their minds for later use, and everyone with a lively mind knew that four was the evangelists, the elements, the seasons, the corners of the world, the quadrivium … SIMULTANEOUSLY.

  3. “Although he mentions it in asides he never really addresses the fact that long after Galileo many leading scientists were deeply religious and saw their scientific work as revealing God’s handy work; scientists such as Kepler and Newton who were just as analytical and even more mathematical than Galileo.”

    I believe it was Maupertuis and d’Alembert (in the 18th century – after Newton) who argued that the principle of least action was ‘proof’ of the existence of god, because god always did things in a perfect, minimalist manner. I agree that deeply religious mathematical scientists have been around a long time, and there are probably some even today.

  4. What is the “somewhat notorious post several years ago” that you wrote and which you refer to? Link?

  5. w jay reedy

    Your review contains numerous misspellings and other elementary errors. You should proof-read, clean it up and then repost.

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