John L. Heilbron: Galileo
This year is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius), and in celebration of this date, my old history-of-science professor John Heilbron has published his biography of Galileo, fittingly titled Galileo, though I've only just discovered this fact today by reading yesterday's International Herald Tribune. The historian of science Owen Gingerich reviews the book in that paper, but the same review appeared earlier as his New York Times article "Starry Messenger" (December 24, 2010) and has mostly positive things to say:
Heilbron, an emeritus professor of the history of science at Berkeley, is . . . fine-grained in his approach, leavening his account with wit and irony.That sounds like Heilbron.
Readers who make it through the occasional eye-glazing geometrical digression in J. L. Heilbron's "Galileo" will not be surprised to find that the author’s extensive output includes a fresh explication of Euclid.That sounds like Heilbron, too, but it's a good thing. And glazed eyes aside, if only Galileo himself had been as attentive to such detail, or at least more careful in whom he ridiculed and whom he outraged, for he needn't have been placed under house arrest for views that weren't especially unorthodox:
Heilbron . . . makes no big issue of any religious unorthodoxies on Galileo's part beyond his Copernicism, though surely there must have been some . . . . [H]e doesn't see any secret unbelief underneath the public Catholicism, noting in passing that when Galileo, near the end of his life, was under a strict house arrest on charges of heresy, Urban VIII granted him special permission to attend Mass at a nearby church.Heilbron himself, for all his formidable knowledge and intellect, never places his own views above the reach of critical reason. As he says in a different context, quoting Ludovico Antonio Muratori: "Humility, humility, humility" (at 49 minutes, 5 seconds into the video). As for Heilbron's views on the Jesuits, I recall from several of our conversations his admiration for Jesuit intellectual rigor. Studying under him was a bit like learning under Jesuits, and his writings are not an easy read:
Everyone agrees that Galileo was an incorrigible egotist, so full of himself that he repeatedly misjudged his ability to persuade the authorities of his own opinions. His attempt via the Jesuit astronomers in 1615-16 to convince the Vatican backfired . . . . Heilbron [is] . . . sharply critical of Galileo's unnecessary alienation of the Jesuits, and . . . in particular highlights Galileo's scientific fumbles, both in the debates with the Jesuits and later in his controversial "Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems" (1632). As he wryly comments, "It was not Galileo's style to accept corrections from others."
Heilbron's [biography] has . . . rich . . . scientific detail, and will no doubt become the standard, comprehensive biography. Early in the book, Heilbron has a serious mathematical discussion of Galileo's Paduan period. In one of his most inventive sections, he creates a Galilean dialogue on issues of algebra and geometry. Though not easy to read, it brilliantly expresses the ambiguities and blind alleys as Galileo wrestled with the conceptual difficulty of introducing a non-geometrical quantity -- time itself -- into the proportions. These issues did not find their final formulation until the end of his life, when he raced to complete "Two New Sciences" and smuggle it to Holland for publication.He creates a Galilean dialogue? Irony of ironies! Heilbron, author of science fiction! Well, he always was an 'instrumentalist' on the issue of truth. At any rate, I must go out and obtain a copy of this lively biography! More seriously, concerning Galileo's use of geometry, if I recall correctly, even Newton struggled to express his hard-won views on the unity of celestial mechanics and terrestrial dynamics not in the calculus that he had invented in developing his views, but in the language of geometrical proportion. I'm no expert on that, however, and may have a faulty memory about the point.
Anyway, hats off to John Heilbron for his new book. I'll raise a glass in his honor at midnight tonight as this anniversary year passes. Let's not forget Galileo, either, as his Sidereal year passes by. "Time just gets away from us," as Mattie Ross says in the penultimate line to her tale in True Grit, but it won't get away tonight without a toast in passing.