Galileo’s the 12th most influential person in Western History – Really?

Somebody, who will remain nameless, drew my attention to a post on the Presidential Politics for America blog shortly before Christmas in order to provoke me. Anybody who knows me and my blogging will instantly recognise why I should feel provoked if they just read the opening paragraph.

Despite the paradigm-shifting idea of our #28 Nicolaus Copernicus, for nearly a century afterward his heliocentric theory twisted in the solar wind. It took another man to confirm Copernicus’s daring theory. That alone would make this other man an all-time great contributor to Western science, but he gifted us so much more than merely confirming someone else’s idea. He had a series of inventions, discoveries, and theories that helped modernize science. His accomplishments in mechanics were without precedent. His telescope observed what was once unobservable. Perhaps most importantly, he embodied, furthered, and inspired a growing sentiment that truth is a slave to science and facts, not authority and dogma.

This man was Galileo Galilei, and he’s the 12thmost influential person in Western History.

Before I start on my usually HistSci_Hulk demolition job to welcome the New Year I should point out that this crap was written by somebody claiming to be a history teacher; I feel for his student.

This post is part of a long-term series on The Top 30 Most Influential Western European Figures in History; I kid you not! Sorry, but I’m not a fan of rankings in general and to attempt to rank the historical influence of Western Europeans is in my opinion foolhardy at best and totally bonkers at worst.

We turn our attention to his #11 Galileo Galilei. We start with the very obvious false claim, the very first one in fact, Galileo did not ‘confirm Copernicus’s daring theory.’ Next up we have the statement: ‘He had a series of inventions, discoveries, and theories that helped modernize science.’

Only in his teens, he identified the tautochronic curve that explains why the pendulum behaves as it does. This discovery laid the groundwork for Christian [sic] Huygens to create the world’s first pendulum clock, which became the most accurate method of keeping time into the twentieth century. 

It is Christiaan not Christian Huygens. Galileo discovered the isochronal principle of the pendulum but the earliest record of his researches on the pendulum is in a letter to his patron Guidobaldo del Monte dated 2 November 1602, when he was 38 years old. The story that he discovered the principle, as a teenager was first propagated posthumously by his first biographer Viviani and to be taken with a pinch of salt. He didn’t discover that the free circular pendulum swing is not isochronal but only the tautochrone curve is; this discovery was actually made by Huygens. There is no evidence that Galileo’s design of a never realised pendulum clock had any connections with or influence on Huygens’ eventually successfully constructed pendulum clock. That pendulum clocks remained the most accurate method of keeping time into the twentieth century is simply wrong.

The precocious Galileo also invented thethermoscope…

 It is not certain that Galileo invented the thermoscope; it is thought that his friend Santorio Santorio actually invented it; he was certainly the first during the Renaissance to publish a description of it. The invention was attributed to Galileo, Santorio, Robert Fludd and Cornelius Drebble. However, the principle on which it was based was used in the Hellenic period and described even earlier by Empedocles in book On Nature in 460 BCE. This is part of a general pattern in the Galileo hagiography, inventions and discoveries that were made by several researchers during his lifetime are attributed solely to Galileo even when he was not even the first to have made them.

At just 22, he published a book onhydrostatic balance, giving him his first bit of fame.

 This ‘book’, La Bilancetta or The Little Balance was actually a booklet or pamphlet and only exists in a few manuscripts so during his lifetime never printed. He used it together with another pamphlet on determining centres of gravity to impress and win patrons within the mathematical community such as Guidobaldo del Monte and Christoph Clavius; in this he was successful.

He attended medical school but, for financial reasons, he had to drop out and work as a tutor. Nevertheless, he eventually became chair of the mathematics department at theUniversity of Pisa.

He studied medicine at the University of Pisa because that was the career that his father had determined for him. He dropped out, not for financial reasons but because he wanted to become a mathematician and not a physician. He studied mathematics privately in Florence and having established his abilities with the pamphlets mentioned above was, with the assistance of his patrons, appointed to teach mathematics in Pisa. However, due to his innate ability to piss people off his contract was terminated after only three years. His patrons now helped him to move to the University of Padua.

He taught at Padua for nearly 20 years, and it’s there where he turned from reasonably well-known Galileo Galilei to Galileo[emphasis in original]. Like the great Italian artists of his age, he became so talented and renowned that soon just his first name sufficed.

This is simply rubbish. He remained virtually unknown outside of Padua until he made his telescopic discoveries in 1610. He turned those discoveries into his exit ticket and left Padua as soon as possible. As for his name, he is, for example, known in English as Galileo but in German as Galilei.

We now turn to mechanics the one field in which Galileo can really claim more than a modicum of originality. However, even here our author drops a major clangour.

Through experimentation, he determined that a feather falls slower than a rock not because of the contrasting weight but because of the extra friction caused by the displacement of Earth’s atmosphere on the flatter object. 

Through experimentation! Where and when did Galileo build his vacuum chamber? Our author missed an opportunity here. This was, of course, Galileo’s most famous thought experiment in which he argues rationally that without air resistance all objects would fall at the same rate. In fact Galileo’s famous use of thought experiments doesn’t make an appearance in this account at all.

Galileo built on this foundation a mathematical formula that showed the rate of acceleration for falling objects on Earth. Tying math to physics, he essentially laid the groundwork for later studies of inertia. These mechanical discoveries provided a firm launching point for Isaac Newton’s further modernization of the field.

It is time for the obligatory statement that the mean speed formula the basis of the mathematics of free fall was known to the Oxford Calculatores and the Paris Physicists in the fourteenth century and also the laws of free fall were already known to Giambattista Benedetti in the sixteenth century. As to inertia, Galileo famously got it wrong and Newton took the law of inertia from Descartes, who in turn had it from Isaac Beeckman and not Galileo. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries several researchers tied mathematics to physics, many of them before Galileo. See comment above about attributing the work of many solely to Galileo. We now turn to astronomy!

In the early 1600s, despite Copernicus’s elegant heliocentric model of the solar system having debuted more than a half-century earlier, skeptics remained. Indeed, there was an ongoing divide among astronomers; some favored the Copernican model while others clung to the traditional Ptolemaic premise adopted by the Catholic Church, which put the earth at the universe’s center. Even Tycho Brahe, a leading post-Copernican astronomer, favored geocentrism, though his Tychonic system did make some allowances for Copernicus’s less controversial ideas. Brahe’s position helped him avoid the fate of heliocentrist Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition in 1600. This heated astronomical climate awaited Galileo Galilei.

There is nothing particularly elegant about Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system. In fact it’s rather clunky due to his insistence, after removing the equant point, of retaining the so-called Platonic axiom of uniform circular motion. His model was in fact more cluttered and less elegant than the prevailing geocentric model from Peuerbach. Sceptics didn’t remain, as our author puts it, implying in this and the following sentences that there was no reason other than (religious) prejudice for retaining a geocentric model. Unfortunately, as I never tire of repeating, Copernicus’ model suffered from a small blemish, a lack of proof. In fact the vast majority of available empirical evidence supported a geocentric system. You know proof is a fundamental element of all science, including astronomy. If I were playing mythology of science bingo I would now shout full house with the introduction of Giordano Bruno into the mix. No, Giordano was not immolated because he was a supporter of heliocentricity.

Like Bruno, Galileo knew Copernicus was right, and he set out to prove it. Early in the seventeenth century, he received word about a new invention created by the German-Dutch spectacle-makerHans Lippershey In 1608, Lippershey used his knowledge of lenses to make a refracting telescope, which used lenses, an eye piece, and angular strategies to bend light, allowing in more of it. More light could clarify and magnify a desired object, and Lippershey’s rudimentary design could make something appear about three times bigger. Galileo, though he never saw a telescope in person nor even designs of one, heard a basic description of it, checked the information against his brain’s enormous database, realized it could work, and built one of his own. A better one.

Comparing Bruno with Galileo is really something one should avoid doing. Our author’s description of how a refracting telescope works is, I admit, beyond my comprehension, as the function of a refracting telescope is apparently beyond his. The claim that Galileo never saw a telescope, which he made himself, has been undermined by the researches of Mario Biagioli, who argues convincingly that he probably had seen one. I love the expression “checked the information against his brain’s enormous database.” I would describe it not so much as hyperbole as hyperbollocks!

With his improved telescope he could magnify objects thirty times, and he immediately pointed it to the once unknowable heavens and transformed astronomy in numerous ways:

I will start with the general observation that Galileo was by no means the only person pointing a telescope at the heavens in the period between 1609 and 1613, which covers the discoveries described below. He wasn’t even the first that honour goes to Thomas Harriot. Also, all of the discoveries were made independently either at roughly the same time or even earlier than Galileo. If Galileo had never heard of the telescope it would have made virtually no difference to the history of astronomy. He had two things in his favour; he was in general a more accurate observer that his competitors and he published first. Although it should be noted that his principle publication, the Sidereus Nuncius, is more a press release that a scientific report. The first telescope Galileo presented to the world was a 9X magnification and although Galileo did build a 30X magnification telescope most of his discoveries were made with a 20X magnification model. The competitors were using very similar telescopes. “…the once unknowable heavens” we actually already knew quite a lot about the heavens through naked-eye observations.

  • It was assumed that the moon, like all the heavenly spheres, was perfectly smooth. Galileo observed craters and mountains. He inferred, accurately, that all celestial objects had blemishes of their own.

This was actually one of Galileo’s greatest coups. Thomas Harriot, who drew telescopic images of the moon well before Galileo did not realise what he was seeing. After seeing Galileo’s drawings of the moon in the Sidereus Nuncius, he immediately realised that Galileo was right and changed his own drawing immediately. One should, however, be aware of the fact that throughout history there were those who hypothesised that the shadows on the moon were signs of an uneven surface.

  • Though Jupiter had been observed since the ancient world, what Galileo was the first to discover was satellites orbiting around it — the Jovian System. In other words, a planet other than the Earth had stuff orbiting it. It was another brick in Copernicus’s “we’re not that important” wall.

And as I never tire of emphasising, Simon Marius made the same discovery one day later. I have no idea what Copernicus’s “we’re not that important” wall is supposed to be but the discovery of the moons of Jupiter is an invalidation of the principle in Aristotelian cosmology that states that all celestial bodies have a common centre of rotation; a principle that was already violated by the Ptolemaic epicycle-deferent model. It says nothing about the truth or lack of it of either a geocentric or heliocentric model of the cosmos.

  • Pointing his telescope at the sun, Galileo observed sunspots. Though the Chinese first discovered them in 800 BC, as Westerners did five hundred years later, no one had seen or sketched them as clearly as Galileo had. It was another argument against the perfect spheres in our sky.

Telescopic observations of sunspots were first made by Thomas Harriot. The first publication on the discovery was made by Johannes Fabricius. Galileo became embroiled in a meaningless pissing contest with the Jesuit astronomer, Christoph Scheiner, as to who first discovered them. The best sketches of the sunspots were made by Scheiner in his Rosa Ursina sive Sol (Bracciano, 1626–1630).

  • Galileo also discovered that Venus, like the moon, has phases (crescent/quarter/half, waxing/waning, etc.). This was a monumental step in confirming Copernicus’s theory, as Venusian phases require certain angles of sunlight that a geocentric model does not allow.

The phases of Venus were discovered independently by at least four observers, Thomas Harriot, Simon Marius, Galileo and the Jesuit astronomer Paolo Lembo. The astronomers of the Collegio Romano claimed that Lembo had discovered them before Galileo but dating the discoveries is almost impossible. In a geocentric model Venus would also have phases but they would be different to the ones observed, which confirmed that Venus, and by analogy Mercury, whose phases were only observed much later, orbits the Sun. Although this discovery refutes a pure geocentric system it is still compatible with a Capellan system, in which Venus and Mercury orbit the Sun in a geocentric model, which was very popular in the Middle ages and also with any of the Tychonic and semi-Tychonic models in circulation at the time so it doesn’t really confirm a heliocentric model

  • The observable hub of the Milky Way galaxy was assumed to be, just as it looks to us, a big, milky cloud. Galileo discovered it was not a cloud, but a huge cluster of stars. (We now know it numbers in the billions.)

Once again a multiple discovery made by everybody who pointed a telescope at the heavens beginning with Lipperhey.

Galileo not only confirmed Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, but he allowed the likes of Johannes Kepler to more accurately plot out the planets’ orbits, Isaac Newton to explain how it was happening, and Albert Einstein to explain why. It was such a colossal step forward for the observable universe that some people didn’t even believe what they were seeing in the telescope, electing to instead remain skeptical of Galileo’s “sorcery.”

Galileo did not in any way confirm Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. In fact heliocentricity wasn’t confirmed until the eighteenth century. First with Bradley’s discovery of stellar aberration in 1725 proving the annual orbit around the sun and then the determination of the earth’s shape in the middle of the century indirectly confirming diurnal rotation. The telescopic observations made by Galileo et al had absolutely nothing to do with Kepler’s determination of the planetary orbits. Newton’s work was based principally on Kepler’s elliptical system regarded as a competitor to Copernicus’ system, which Galileo rejected/ignored, and neither Galileo nor Copernicus played a significant role in it. How Albert got in here I have absolutely no idea. Given the very poor quality of the lenses used at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the number of optical artifacts that the early telescopes produced, people were more than justified in remaining skeptical about the things apparently seen in telescopes.

Ever the watchdog on sorcery, it was time for the Catholic Church to guard its territory. Protective of geocentrism and its right to teach us about the heavens, the Church had some suggestions about exactly where the astronomer could stick his telescope. In 1616, under the leadership of Pope Paul V, heliocentrism was deemed officially heretical, and Galileo was instructed “henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way.”

The wording of this paragraph clearly states the author’s prejudices without consideration of historical accuracy. Galileo got into trouble in 1615/16 for telling the Catholic Church how to interpret the Bible, a definitive mistake in the middle of the Counter Reformation. Heliocentrism was never deemed officially heretical. The injunction against Galileo referred only to heliocentrism as a doctrine i.e. a true theory. He and everybody else were free to discuss it as a hypothesis, which many astronomers preceded proceeded to do.

A few years later, a confusing stretch of papal leadership got Galileo into some trouble. In 1623,Pope Urban VIII took a shine to Galileo and encouraged his studies by lifting Pope Paul’s ban. A grateful Galileo resumed his observations and collected them into his largest work, 1632’s “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” In it, he sums up much of his observations and shows the superiority of the newer heliocentric model. The following year, almost as if a trap were set, the Catholic Inquisition responded with a formal condemnation and trial, charging him with violating the initial 1616 decree. Dialogue was placed on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII, had been a good friend of Galileo’s since he first emerged into the limelight in 1611 and after he was elected Pope did indeed show great favour to Galileo. He didn’t, however, lift Paul V’s ban. It appears that he gave Galileo permission to write a book presenting the geocentric and heliocentric systems, as long as he gave them equal weight. This he very obviously did not do; Galileo the master of polemic skewed his work very, very heavily in favour of the heliocentric system. He had badly overstepped the mark and got hammered for it.  He, by the way, didn’t resume his observations; the Dialogo is based entirely on earlier work. One is, by the way, condemn after being found guilty in a trial not before the trial takes place when one is charged or accused.

Galileo’s popularity, combined with a sheepish Pope Urban, limited his punishment to a public retraction and house arrest for his remaining days. At nearly 70, he didn’t have the strength to resist. Old, tired, and losing his vision after years of repeatedly pointing a telescope at the brightest object in the solar system, he accepted his sentence. Blind and condemned, his final years were mostly spent dictating “Two New Sciences,” which summarized his 30 years of studying physics.

Galileo’s popularity would not have helped him, exactly the opposite. People who were highly popular and angered the Church tended to get stamped on extra hard, as an example to the masses. Also, Urban was anything but sheepish. The public retraction was standard procedure for anyone found guilty by the Inquisition and the transmission of his sentence from life imprisonment to house arrest was an act of mercy to an old man by an old friend. Whether Galileo’s telescopic observations contributed to his blindness is disputed and he hadn’t really made many observations since about 1613. The work summarised in the Discorsi was mostly carried out in the middle period of his life between 1589 and 1616.

The author now veers off into a discussion, as to who is the father or founder of this or that and why one or other title belongs to Copernicus, Newton, Aristotle, Bacon etc. rather than Galileo. Given his belief that one can rank The Top 30 Most Influential Western European Figures in History, it doesn’t surprise me that he is a fan of founder and father of titles. They are, as regular readers will already know, in my opinion a load of old cobblers. Disciplines or sub-disciplines are founded or fathered over several generations by groups of researchers not individuals.

His article closes with a piece of hagiographical pathos:

Moreover, Galileo’s successes were symbolic of a cornerstone in modern science. His struggle against the Church embodied the argument that truth comes from experience, experiments, and the facts — not dogma. He showed us authority and knowledge are not interchangeable. Though the Inquisitors silenced him in 1633, his discoveries, works, and ideas outlived them. For centuries, he has stood as an inspiration for free thinkers wrestling against ignorant authority.

This is typical exaggerated presentation of the shabby little episode that is Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic Church. It wasn’t really like that you know. Here we have the heroic struggle of scientific truth versus religious dogma, a wonderful vision but basically pure bullshit. What actually took place was that a researcher with an oversized ego, Galileo, thought he could take the piss out of the Pope and the Catholic Church. As it turned out he was mistaken.

Being a history teacher I’m sure our author would want me to grade his endeavours. He has obviously put a lot of work into his piece so I will give him an E for effort. However, it is so strewn with errors and falsities that I can only give him a F for the content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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16 Comments

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

16 responses to “Galileo’s the 12th most influential person in Western History – Really?

  1. So I’m left wondering–

    You’re clearly setting out to give an antidote to a historical myth where Galileo invented all of pre-Newtonian science and everything a Catholic ever touched is horseshit; and that’s a myth well worth demolishing.

    And yet I have this feeling, right or wrong, that even when you strip away the prodigious hyperbole (not to mention the “Simplicio” fiasco), Galileo was still quite a brilliant man, even if he can’t live up to the subsequent legends; that he made genuine contributions to astronomical instrumentation and observation, and to empiricism as a methodology.

    Maybe I’m wrong about even that, but I wonder how you might polemicise against a rabid Galileo detractor in the same fashion as you responded to ignorant fans?

    • Any long-time reader of this blog knows that Thony has a severe allergic reaction to the Galileo myths. Biographers such as Wootton and Heilbron have a somewhat more moderate take. (Owen Gingerich reviewed both these bios.)

      That said, detractors of Galileo fall into two categories. First, professional historians. Even when they (apparently) harbor a deep dislike of GG, they don’t leave a trail of errors in their wake, simply because they’re professionals. (Example: Shea and Artigas, who wrote Galileo in Rome.) Arthur Koestler, although not a historian by trade, also rates honorary inclusion in this group. (Koestler was also refreshing upfront about his personal feelings vis-a-vis GG.)

      Second, we have out-and-out nutcases who still believe in geocentrism. (Example: Robert Sungenis.) The pro-Galileo myths still enjoy widespread currency, while the fixed Earthers, when they show up on the radar screen at all, attract only ridicule 99% of the time. So it’s not worth the trouble to swat them.

      I could make the argument that Thony is trying to bail out the ocean with a spoon—the Galileo myths will persist long after we’re all gone. That’s what myths do! I could make that argument, but I won’t. His take-downs are just so much fun to read!

    • As the Dialogue has taken numerous hits over the years on this blog (although not so much in this post), let me pull a quote from the Gingerich review I linked above:

      The “Dialogue” was in fact not a great classic of scientific discovery. It was, however, the book that won the war, the persuasive account that made the Copernican cosmology intellectually respectable.

      • Much as I dislike contradicting Gingerich, the books that made heliocentric cosmology respectable were Kepler’s Epitome of Copernican Astronomy and his Rudolphin Tables

      • Certainly true vis-a-vis professional astronomers. I assume Gingerich was remarking on the wider social context.

        It’s also worth noting that the predictive success of Keplerian astronomy has zero to do, logically, with the physical question of whether the earth “actually” moves (pace Einstein). Indeed, Kepler carefully stated geostatic equivalents in the Astronomia Nova.

      • Ray

        I’m skeptical you can pick out any one work which both “won the war” and “made Copernican cosmology intellectually respectable. Surely the latter happened before the former for one thing, and in any event the whole process took over 100 years. The Dialogue is indeed a bit of a strange choice if we’re talking about professional astronomers since most of the content in the Dialogue was already present in Galileo’s Letters on Sunspots published two decades earlier. But then Kepler’s Epitome is strange as well, since heliocentrism had already gained majority acceptance (1630s) by the time elliptical orbits had overtaken circular ones (1640s) among professional astronomers. One might argue Kepler’s epitome is a better argued work, but it also gets wrong some things Galileo got right, such as the 3 dimensional distribution of fixed stars. (Kepler argued the stars were arranged on the surface of a sphere centered on the sun.)

      • Ray: first, to clarify my “certainly true”, I meant that Thony is certainly right that the Dialog was not decisive with professional astronomers. The main reason: Galileo ignored the chief challenge to heliocentricity, the Tychonic system.

        I agree with you that the transition was a complex process taking decades.

        If we want to boil it down to one primary factor, I would name the success of Newtonian mechanics. A physical question must hinge on your physics. Note also that its only serious competitor for a long time, the vortex theory, also had the earth revolving around the sun.

  2. “He and everybody else were free to discuss it as a hypothesis, which many astronomers preceded to do.”

    Preceded —> proceeded

  3. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I’m just a public school teacher with a hobby. (Yes, students deserve better.) You’ll be comforted and not at all surprised to know my writing has earned relatively few readers and precisely zero dollars. I’m just trying to get better at it, and criticisms such as this one should help that endeavor. Your website looks great and I look forward to reading more.

    IC

  4. One quibble: Richard Arthur made a special study of the Beeckman-Descartes relationship. He concluded that Beeckman still hadn’t rid himself from the “circular inertia” puzzlements. Thus, Descartes was the first to understand inertia in the sense of Newton’s first law.

    Galileo’s confusion over circular inertia is rather complicated. The Dialogs does include a postil that states the law of linear inertia as clearly as one could wish, but this is undercut by the main discussion.

    • However, there is no doubt that Descartes took the concept of inertia from Beeckman and not Galileo and Newton also took it from Descartes not Galileo.

      • Well yes—both Galileo and Beeckman were continuing the tradition of the impetus theory usually attributed to Buridan (14th C.) And the line of influence runs Beeckman to Descartes to Newton, bypassing Galileo completely. A classic paper by Herivel (I believe) first proposed the second link.

        But the Descartes contribution is, I claim, the critical one. What does inertia buy you? Two things: (a) a dismantling of many of the standard arguments for a fixed earth; (b) an explanation of centrifugal force, and the basis for the formula for it.

        Now, (a) works as well with circular inertia. Also, it’s not new with Beeckman, but an established part of the impetus tradition. But for (b) we need to reject circular inertia in favor of linear inertia. In other words, we need to transition from Beeckman’s understanding to Descartes’. And (b) in turn is a crucial ingredient to Newton’s apple/moon insight.

  5. Laurence Cox

    Here is a semi-popular article that Owen Gingerich wrote for Physics Today, the AIP house journal, in 2011: http://sites.apam.columbia.edu/courses/ap1601y/PhysToday-2011-Kepler.pdf

    It really illustrates just how large the errors in the Copernican heliocentric model were before Kepler used Tycho’s data to create a heliocentric model with elliptical orbits.

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