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Galileo and impolitic science
February 7, 2013 12:00 AM   Subscribe

Moon Man: What Galileo saw. [Via]
posted by homunculus (28 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Brilliant article. Worth reading in full, but its conclusion that it does not matter if Galileo recanted struck me as particularly interesting:

Martyrdom is the test of faith, but the test of truth is truth. Once the book was published, who cared what transparent lies you had to tell to save your life? The best reason we have to believe in miracles is the miracle that people are prepared to die for them. But the best reason that we have to believe in the moons of Jupiter is that no one has to be prepared to die for them in order for them to be real.

So the scientist can shrug at the torturer and say, "Any way you want me to tell it, I will..." Science demands heroic minds, but not heroic morals. It’s one of the things that make it move.

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:40 AM on February 7, 2013 [11 favorites]


"The difference is apparent if you compare what astrologers actually did and what the new astronomers were doing. “The Arch-Conjuror of England” (Yale), Glynn Parry’s entertaining new biography of Galileo’s contemporary the English magician and astrologer John Dee, shows that Dee was, in his own odd way, an honest man and a true intellectual. He races from Prague to Paris, holding conferences with other astrologers and publishing papers, consulting with allies and insulting rivals. He wasn’t a fraud. His life has all the look and sound of a fully respectable intellectual activity, rather like, one feels uneasily, the life of a string theorist today."

Oh Snap.

Now thats just cold. Funny, true, but just damn.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:36 AM on February 7, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is so true: Human curiosity is an amazing accelerant.
posted by Pendragon at 1:51 AM on February 7, 2013


This, of course, brought to mind Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream, which had its moments.
posted by y2karl at 2:01 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


This article mentions Galileo, Shakespeare, Brecht, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Copernicus, Edison, Newton, Milton, Darwin, Huxley, Heisenberg and Hitler.

And yet curiously omits Andy Kaufman.

If you believed they put a man on the moon, man on the moon
If you believe there's nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool

posted by twoleftfeet at 2:52 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have to disagree here. This strikes me as a typical example of Gopnik's style: engaging, highly readable and utterly superficial. Take that passage about Galileo and John Dee, for instance:
Contemporary historians of science have a tendency to deprecate the originality of the so-called scientific revolution, and to stress, instead, its continuities with medieval astrology and alchemy. And they have a point. It wasn’t that one day people were doing astrology in Europe and then there was this revolution and everyone started doing astronomy. Newton practiced alchemy; Galileo drew up all those horoscopes. But if you can’t tell the difference in tone and temperament between Galileo’s sound and that of what went before, then you can’t tell the difference between chalk and cheese. The difference is apparent if you compare what astrologers actually did and what the new astronomers were doing.
He starts off with a mildly patronising gesture in the direction of 'contemporary historians of science' who try to deny the importance of the scientific revolution. (Ah, these academics! The 'so-called' scientific revolution, oh dear, oh dear! Still, one must be tolerant ..) Then he graciously admits that yes, maybe they do have a point, maybe there wasn't such a sharp divide between astrology and astronomy. (See? I'm a reasonable kind of guy ..) Then he performs a deft U-turn and asserts that actually there was a sharp divide between astrology and astronomy: the two were as different as chalk and cheese. (Just what we thought all along!) But the style is so charming, so conversational, that it's easy to glide past the contradictions in the argument.

In short, Gopnik is an amiable lightweight who flatters his readers into thinking they are learning something new about Galileo when in fact they're simply having their preconceptions confirmed. (As he remarks at the end of the article: 'the myth seems pretty much right'.) For anyone who actually wants to learn more about Galileo, and understand him as a Renaissance radical rather than a modern scientist, try Anthony Grafton's brief essay, The Moonstruck Tuscan.
posted by verstegan at 2:53 AM on February 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


He starts off with a mildly patronising gesture in the direction of 'contemporary historians of science' who try to deny the importance of the scientific revolution. (Ah, these academics! The 'so-called' scientific revolution, oh dear, oh dear! Still, one must be tolerant ..) Then he graciously admits that yes, maybe they do have a point, maybe there wasn't such a sharp divide between astrology and astronomy. (See? I'm a reasonable kind of guy ..) Then he performs a deft U-turn and asserts that actually there was a sharp divide between astrology and astronomy: the two were as different as chalk and cheese.

I don't think there's a contradiction at all. He's saying that while Galileo did perform horoscopes, he was also doing something radically new. He wasn't doing some practice that's a halfway point between astrology and astronomy, he was doing both traditonal astrology (horoscopes) and the new astronomy (studying the moon, etc) as separate practices.
posted by empath at 4:28 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


whenever i get frustrated by the arguments of a new earth creationist, it heartens me that just 400 years ago we were just figuring out that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. i'm sure making an analogy between all the biblical passages which assert a fixed earth, which are now considered metaphorical, and all the passages asserting a young earth would have no effect.
posted by camdan at 4:50 AM on February 7, 2013


What bugged me about the article was how it cast Galileo as the first scientific empiricist. ("He took the competitive, empirical drive with which Florentine painters had been looking at the world and used it to look at the night sky.")

Vesalius had started down that road in medicine 100 years before, and it was Tycho Brahe's dedicated collection of data that allowed Kepler to derive the laws of planetary motiion - and as the article notes, Galileo rejected Kepler.

As a side note, it was empirical evidence that led Brahe to reject Copernicus. A moving earth should have allowed him to measure stellar parallax, and he couldn't do so. (It turns out the universe is so much larger than they were aware, that it would be another 200 years before equipment that accurate was available.)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:28 AM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


What bugged me about the article was how it cast Galileo as the first scientific empiricist. ("He took the competitive, empirical drive with which Florentine painters had been looking at the world and used it to look at the night sky.")

I didn't see anything in there about him being the first.
posted by empath at 6:00 AM on February 7, 2013


Most accounts of Galileo don't mention that his results were not easily reproducible in his time, the revised Ptolemaic system functioned well in many respects, and that he antagonized other scientists. In short, he was a crackpot who happened to be right, and his modern equivalent--a guy who claims to get hard to reproduce results with a less reliable model and whines that the academic establishment is against him--would be tossed on his ass.

This doesn't mean there's a future Galileo in the crackpot community, but still.
posted by mobunited at 6:21 AM on February 7, 2013


He became an ever more convinced Copernican, but he had his crotchets. He never accepted Kepler’s proof that the orbits of the planets in the Copernican system had to be ellipses, because he loved the perfection of circles; and he was sure that the movement of the tides was the best proof that the earth was turning, since the ocean water on the earth’s surface was so obviously sloshing around as it turned. The truth—that the moon was pulling the water at a distance—seemed to him obvious nonsense, and he never tired of mocking it.
If you drill into this paragraph. It's kind of interesting, the callow perspective of Gopnick sort of brings out Galileo, the opportunist and scientific adventurer. A sort of Edison of the Renaissance, riding a telescope instead of DC current. He loves the circles but can't get behind Kepler's even wilder metaphysical insights.

The problem with Copernicanism had little to do with empiricism, which can hardly be concerned with metaphysical doctrines like Catholicism, but the fact that it masked a stealth Platonism: perfect circles, and all that entails. Galileo was the most important member of the Academy Lincei [pdf]:
The "Lynceographum" also stressed the dangers that contacts with women posed to the philosophers' intellectual life. 7 According [End Page 140] to Cesi, the Lincei were required to avoid "the attractions of Venus," "bad women and profane love," "Venereal lust," "prostitutes," "tempting lust," "low passions of the body," "carnal drives," "libidinous excitements," and "the body's inane desires." 8 Additionally, the "Lynceographum" ordered the academicians to stay clear of "scandals with boys," and legislated how violations of the Lincei's code of honor were to be reprimanded and punished. 9 Finally, not a maid but a male servant was supposed to be hired in each liceo to keep the place clean and to care for the academicians. A female servant could be hired only if she were elderly and unattractive. Cesi's prescriptions seem to reflect a Platonic privileging of male chaste love over heterosexual desire, something we find also in the earlier Florentine Platonic Academy and other humanistic academies in Renaissance Italy

a thoroughly neoplatonic establishment. Listen to Newton: the scientific revolution rests on the shoulders of giants. Kepler1, Descartes, and Archimedes: a warlock, a philosopher, and a pagan mathematician.

[1] Kepler's mother he describes in the family horoscope as "small, thin, swarthy, gossiping and quarrelsome, of a bad disposition". His mother collected herbs and made potions which she believed had magical powers. She was raised by an aunt who was burned at the stake as a witch, and Kepler's mother narrowly escaped a similar fate herself (see ref 2, page 159: Kepler had to hire several lawyers to defend his seventy-year-old mother incarcerated on a charge of witchcraft, and "Another woman born in the same town as Kepler's mother, and accused of complicity with her, had already left one of her thumbs stuck in the rack".
posted by ennui.bz at 6:33 AM on February 7, 2013


CheeseDigestsAll: What bugged me about the article was how it cast Galileo as the first scientific empiricist. ("He took the competitive, empirical drive with which Florentine painters had been looking at the world and used it to look at the night sky.")

Vesalius had started down that road in medicine 100 years before, and it was Tycho Brahe's dedicated collection of data that allowed Kepler to derive the laws of planetary motiion - and as the article notes, Galileo rejected Kepler.
And your comments are eurocentric, which probably isn't your fault, but the fault of our ridiculously ignorant, onanistically eurocentric, Western educational system:

499 CE: Aryabhata (in India) described the motion of planets as elliptical around the sun, and predicted eclipses as validation - over 1,000 years before the birth of Kepler.

628 CE: Brahmagupta (India) first recognized gravity as a force of attraction, and described the second law of gravitation - over 1,000 years before the birth of Newton.

928 CE: Mohammad al-Fazari (Middle East) constructed the earliest surviving astrolabe, a scientific achievement rivaling the importance of the telescope.

1150 CE: Bhāskara II (India) calculated longitudes and latitudes of the planets, lunar and solar eclipses, risings and settings, the lunar crescent, syzygies, conjunctions of planets with each other and with stars, planetary mean motion, first visibilities of the planets, the seasons, and the length of the Earth's revolution around the Sun to 9 decimal places. (Whew!) This sort of accuracy simply isn't possible with pre-heliocentric models, and achieving the rest of his predictions are either equally impossible (planet-star conjunctions over long periods), or require precise direct measurements from the events themselves (which is undoubtedly how Paleolithic instruments like Stonehenge were constructed). What a guy!

984 CE: Ibn Sahl discovered "Snell's Law", 600 years before "Snell" (Willebrord Snellius) was born.

The compound telescope and the microscope, at least, seem to truly be European inventions. In fact, while India and the Middle East (and separately, China) dominated scientific inquiry until sometime early in the 2nd millenium, Europe led thereafter in almost all fields... and subsequently claimed credit for most previous discoveries.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:38 AM on February 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Most accounts of Galileo don't mention that his results were not easily reproducible in his time, the revised Ptolemaic system functioned well in many respects, and that he antagonized other scientists. In short, he was a crackpot who happened to be right, and his modern equivalent--a guy who claims to get hard to reproduce results with a less reliable model and whines that the academic establishment is against him--would be tossed on his ass."

It is also important to keep in mind that he really wasn't right, at least in the sense that the models he supported were not really that meaningfully better at predicting astronomical phenomenon than Ptolemaic ones. By refusing to account for the elliptical orbits of the planets that Kepler discovered in a moment of much more profound intellectual honesty, in the purely empirical sense of what he could accurately predict, he could only really be said to be right in terms of flavor rather than substance.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:38 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


mobunited: In short, he was a crackpot who happened to be right, and his modern equivalent--a guy who claims to get hard to reproduce results with a less reliable model and whines that the academic establishment is against him--would be tossed on his ass.
Nonsense. He produced reproducible results using mathematical analysis and scientific observations. "Easy" is not a requirement for reproducibility.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:42 AM on February 7, 2013


"Nonsense. He produced reproducible results using mathematical analysis and scientific observations. "Easy" is not a requirement for reproducibility."

No, mobunited is absolutely correct. Research that isn't communicated, is not possible to reproduce, or does not seem worth reproducing out of distrust or inaccessibility is all pretty equivalently non-scientific. 'Easiness' very much does come into it, someone who is right and not worth the effort of checking is just as much not part of the scientific community as someone who is right and silent.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:58 AM on February 7, 2013


I find it problematic to consider something that is "not part of the scientific community" with something that is "non-scientific." Ease or practicality of reproducibility is, I agree, an important factor in whether or not a particular set of theories, experiments, and results will be accepted by the scientific community. And it's fair to take a position that, at a certain point, something can be so difficult to reproduce that it would be unreasonable to accept it as scientific unless and until it can be demonstrated to actually be reproducible. Maybe the line is drawn not where it is difficult for an experiment and result to be reproduced, but where the scientist making the claim cannot, himself or herself, reproduce the results for others or refuses to do so. It is reasonable for the scientific community to accept data and observations from the LHC as scientific and "reproducible" even though there's only one LHC, because those experiments and results are, in fact, reproducible. It would not be unreasonable, however, for the scientific community to reject those observations and results if there was not a certain level of transparency and access to the LHC and its operations. Does that make sense?
posted by The World Famous at 7:15 AM on February 7, 2013


The World Famous: It is reasonable for the scientific community to accept data and observations from the LHC as scientific and "reproducible" even though there's only one LHC, because those experiments and results are, in fact, reproducible.
How is this in any way different from the fact that there was probably only one telescope in the world capable of making those measurements (which itself was actually readily reproducible)? Did Galileo forbid anyone from using his telescope, or his design? (No.)

His results were reproducible. "Easy" is a ridiculous requirement - how many labs could have produced and interpreted the crystallographic results of Russell's work on DNA? Hardly easy. How about the reproducibility of gene sequencing? Blasdelb claims that "easiness" plays into what is scientific and what is not, but then goes on to describe "non-scientific" as "uncommunicated" (certainly not true of Galileo), "not possible to reproduce" (covered that: not true), or "does not seem worth reproducing" (Galileo's results were confirmed by Kepler; OTOH Darwin's observations of finches were never deemed worthy of reproducing in his time - even by those who accepted his theory).

No, you're all confusing "popular to other scientists" with "scientific". If a man locked in a cell for life conducts experiments scientifically, draws logical conclusions, tests his hypotheses, and writes them down, he is hardly a crackpot: he is doing science.

OTOH, there are "scientific" papers published every single day that are horseshit, full of errors or lies, but accepted by the general scientific community because of the degrees and professional standing of the author(s); these are not "scientific".
posted by IAmBroom at 7:58 AM on February 7, 2013


I think you and I are saying the same thing, IAmBroom.
posted by The World Famous at 8:02 AM on February 7, 2013


My apologies - yes, we are.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:05 AM on February 7, 2013


No worries. I could have been clearer than the block of unedited text that was my comment.
posted by The World Famous at 8:12 AM on February 7, 2013


IAmBroom, you're correct that I'm pretty ignorant about non-European science, but your link to Aryabhata says that whether the predicted a heliocentric model or not is disputed.

But even before him, Aristarchus had a heliocentric model two centuries BCE. Brahe and Kepler are important because they had not just a hypothesis, but the data and the math to back it up.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:17 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


What was all that about a continuum from superstition and dogma to the scientific method?

In Galileo's world, science was the real prisoner of the church, not the scientist. His valor is irrelevant after he sees the moons and bothers to write down his observations. (I abbreviate his work here.) Not too much difference exists between the politics of science and religious hubris. But I do see the truth in the observation that the real test of the scientific inquiry rests on what the scientist can impart to people like me. Tell me what's in it for me, and you'll be famous. Or, if you discover that the Church is based on fish heads, you may get your grant revoked, and all your papers will be relegated to the slush pile. University politics differ only in scale. Work hard, but take care to not piss on the wrong shoes.

We draw up sets, and then make analogies. Whee. Accommodationists are not the salt of the earth, for sure. But who's going to be the one to actually take off his shoe and smack Creationists on the forehead? Shut up! Just shut up!

Let's see, I will plot the orbits of the moons of Jupiter this morning, and tonight I will draw up my daughter's horoscope. I must make sure it tells her to stay away from that Minnelli kid. Hang on, some Mormon wants my vote, and a Scientologist needs me to hook up to his E-machine and get cleared.

Not now, mother, I'm doing science.
posted by mule98J at 8:23 AM on February 7, 2013


"No, you're all confusing "popular to other scientists" with "scientific". If a man locked in a cell for life conducts experiments scientifically, draws logical conclusions, tests his hypotheses, and writes them down, he is hardly a crackpot: he is doing science. "
It is a very common mistake, but science is not a set of facts that are true to the exclusion of supposed facts that are not true, it is a process - at its core not a noun but a verb. Science describes the careful deliberate creation and communication of knowledge, it is inherently a community activity. Such an unfortunate person would be at the very least indistinguishable from a crackpot in every way that matters, regardless of how right they may be. Even if they spend a lifetime building beautiful work, a monk who locks themselves in a cell to do it creates virtually nothing of value in refusing to leave and communicate their discoveries. No one will use their model and with it make better predictions of natural phenomenon, no one will climb atop their work and through its stature see farther, and no one will place their work atop it.

This does not describe Galileo, but there are very much aspects of the nature of Galileo's work that made trusting it genuinely difficult for even honest and informed members in the nascent scientific community, and Galileo's incidental resemblance to a crackpot is an important aspect of who he was that we should remember.
"OTOH, there are "scientific" papers published every single day that are horseshit, full of errors or lies, but accepted by the general scientific community because of the degrees and professional standing of the author(s); these are not "scientific"."
While a scientific paper filled with lies can't really be called scientific, a scientific paper filled with horseshit absolutely can. Science is, again, a verb. In my own research, while it is pretty disquieting to know that any model I could ever conceivably propose for the systems I study will be wrong, there is a pretty awesome reassurance in that - so long as I communicate what I find and it is important - someone else will eventually come along with either better tools or better perspective from other disciplines or better something, and improve it. What Brenard of Chartes used to say really is inherent to all of it.
"His results were reproducible. "Easy" is a ridiculous requirement - how many labs could have produced and interpreted the crystallographic results of Russell's work on DNA?"
Do you mean Rosalind Franklin or John Randall? Because if you mean Franklin there was probably only really one person on Earth stupid and arrogant enough to properly interpret her preliminary photo 51 alone, and it wasn't Franklin.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:00 AM on February 7, 2013


camdan: "whenever i get frustrated by the arguments of a new earth creationist, it heartens me that just 400 years ago we were just figuring out that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. i'm sure making an analogy between all the biblical passages which assert a fixed earth, which are now considered metaphorical, and all the passages asserting a young earth would have no effect."
Galileo's own words might, well, at least I've had luck with them. While it might seem self evident to most of us that a religious text might have nothing of value to say about things like heliocentricity, the physical age of the Earth, mechanics of disease, or the ways in which living systems evolves through natural selection, its really Galileo and his eloquence that in many ways made that so.

This essay only tiptoes around what I think is perhaps one of Galileo's greatest legacies; the stridently theological aspect of his perspective - even if that might be a little uncomfortable to discuss in most academic circles. I'm talking about the thing he did for the Bible that is similar to, though very distinct from, what he did for Aristotle that is summarized in the article - liberating science and religion from each other. Written with an elegant snark that would not be out of place here, his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany in 1615 lays out the distilled essence of his religious argument. Starting, as was usual for Galileo, by blessing his opponent's hearts in flowery vicious Italian, he then drives a wedge into biblical hermeneutics that still defines a profound divide between religious fundamentalism and religious liberalism in the West. The central thesis wasn't new, he actually borrows it from Tertullian, one of the very earliest Apologists from the first century CE,
"We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine, by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word."
But Galileo then expounds on this in such a way as to say something much deeper about the relationship between science and religion than just the 'accommodationism' that Gopnik dismisses it as in the essay. In the letter Galileo declares that in his view, while the Bible is indeed absolute and inherently true, on matters of the physical world it will only ever be trivially so - such that when the facts of the natural world and ones interpretation of the bible seem to conflict its probably a better idea to trust the natural phenomena that proceed as dictated from the Holy Ghost than one's own hermeneutics. In doing so it lays out the theological foundation of Western science that it then desperately needed and still dominates in Western religious circles to this day, and lays the ground work for the division between science and religion that we take so much for granted today but was entirely non-existent then. The discipline of Natural Philosophy, which grew into what we now know of as Western science, was then considered just a subset of theological study - and at the time it made a sort of sense but its this idea first forcefully argued by Galileo that science and religion had fundamentally different kinds of things to say about the world that made the eventual division.

TL;DR, 1615 is really when modern creationists theologically stepped off the clue train.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:10 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


It took me a long time to forgive Galileo for so hideously misreading Aristotle. I don't think I have yet; but at least I think I understand that Aristotle was probably a bit beyond him, so he can't be blamed entirely for such a misunderstanding. Moreover I don't think Aristotle would have minded much if he had known that Galileo was unwittingly continuing his project by pursuing science, even if it meant that the name of Aristotle was applied to a strawman that stood for several centuries as a favorite target for "enlightenment" attacks.
posted by koeselitz at 10:28 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


"By the end of 1610 Galileo had the great satisfaction of learning from the eminent Jesuit astronomer Father Christopher Clavius, chief mathematician at the Roman College, that the new fixed stars and the satellites of Jupiter had been observed there."
- Stillman Drake, The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo.

Reproducibility of his results was important to Galileo. That is the appeal to nature. Doctrinal arguments he mostly ignored, though there were a few instances when could administer a vicious takedown.

For instance, the ridicule he heaped upon one of his detractors who claimed that the spherical perfection of the moon attributed to Aristotle, could be resolved by the existence of a crystalline sphere - transparent and invisible - through which Galileo could see the mountains, craters and other imperfections on the moon.

Gopnik needs to read a little more before he writes. But the typical New Yorker problem is overwritten and underresearched.
posted by warbaby at 2:47 PM on February 7, 2013


IAmBroom: "His results were reproducible. "Easy" is a ridiculous requirement - how many labs could have produced and interpreted the crystallographic results of Russell's work on DNA?"

Blasdelb: Do you mean Rosalind Franklin or John Randall? Because if you mean Franklin there was probably only really one person on Earth stupid and arrogant enough to properly interpret her preliminary photo 51 alone, and it wasn't Franklin.
I meant Rosalind Franklin. Brain fart. However, I'm not clear on what relevance your next point has to my contention that "easy to reproduce" and "popular" simply aren't requirements for scientific results.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:43 AM on February 8, 2013


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