Friday, December 31, 2010

John L. Heilbron: Galileo

John L. Heilbron
(Image from UC Berkeley)

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.

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 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:
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.

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At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Lichanos said...

Believe you are correct about Newtown. Certainly, my copy of the Principia is half geometry. I think he wrote two versions. A friend said Feynman remarked that he did so because his contemporaries would only have been convinced by the geometric demonstration.

Your former teacher's biography is marvelous, and quite unusual. Humor and irony is hardly what I'd call his attitude to Galileo. Sometimes he's downright sarcastic - not what I'd expected in a 400th anniversary treatment of the great man. And just before I read this post, I remarked to my wife how downright odd it was that a biographer would insert a fictional dialog into his work! But it does wonderfully illustrate how the thinking of the day was carried on.

In reading this work, I often think back to my boyhood, before I learned much of science, and the weird explanations and measuring techniques I came up with as I tried to understand the world. I don't mean that Galileo and his contemporaries were childish, not by any means, but without the tools we take for granted now, how mightily they had to struggle to make sense!

Galileo Furioso

At 11:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lichanos, thanks for the welcome, interesting, cordial comment. I've since obtained a copy of Heilbron's text myself and am into the Serenissima section. Very entertaining.

Jeffery Hodges

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