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Galileo: Watcher of the Skies Hardcover – November 2, 2010
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"Wootton. . . argues persuasively in this well researched, intellectual biography that Galileo was a Copernican long before his discovery of the moons of Jupiter proved that not all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth."—Manjit Kumar, Sunday Telegraph
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"Accessible" should by no means equate to "dumbed down." In 37 chapters and 267 pages, Wootton somehow manages to cram as much information about Galileo into the book as possible while maintaining a high level of readability and respect for the reader's intelligence. It quickly becomes apparent that the comic-strip version of the events of Galileo's life that we have inherited are highly strained and misleading at best, or simply grossly wrong at worst. But this is not merely a book setting the facts straight. Wootton has a daring new interpretation of the facts that threads throughout the book. The most controversial of these are the assertions that Galileo converted to Copernicanism much earlier than is popularly imagined; and that he was irreligious -- if not an atheist in the modern sense, then far from the "devout Catholic" that the Church has tried to paint him to be in recent decades. Neither assertion can be proven with hard evidence, but Wootton makes compelling arguments from secondary sources.
As for the famous trial in 1633, Wootton confirms the now prevailing opinion that Galileo was "the architect of his own downfall." It would be easy to portray Pope Urban VIII and the Vatican as evil villains, as popular history would have it. It would be easy -- but wrong. Heliocentrism had been condemned as heresy in 1616, but after Urban was named pontiff in 1624 he liberalized the law and allowed Galileo (whom he admired) to write on the subject, with a few caveats. Galileo betrayed that trust. As Wootton shows, Galileo was a brilliant man who was so assured of himself (even when he was wrong, which was frequent), he consistently took huge risks and often alienated friends and allies. "The clash, when it came, was not between an impersonal institution, the universal Church, on the one hand and a dedicated scientist on the other," the author observes. "Rather it was a falling out between friends, a betrayal, a just punishment. Galileo was indeed a heretic; but worse (for heresy was much more common than historians have realized), he was disloyal and ungrateful. In the world of Counter Reformation Italy, heresy often went unpunished; disloyalty and ingratitude, on the other hand, were never tolerated."
The book is on the whole beautifully and charmingly written. He packs a fair amount of detail about Galileo's various scientific projects into a small space, and those discussions reward careful study. But crucially for something you might want to read on vacation, he wears all this erudition lightly. Wootton is distinctively skillful in connecting scientific details with Galileo's temperamental and ideological idiosyncrasies. These parts of the discussion are (as Wootton acknowledges) a little more speculative, but they also help to tie the scholarship together into a fascinating story.
Two other excellent reviews are posted, so I'll highlight the portion which truly surprised me. In Galileo's time, reliance on vision/sight was not encouraged. Indeed, Wooten points out the Church followed the example of Thomas in the New Testament where on being confronted with a resurrected Christ did not believe his eyes, and insisted on "touching" as proof. I found this tidbit enlightening, and a marked difference from our age where "seeing is believing."
This title was my first exposure to any work of length detailing Galileo's life; but an informative and entertaining introduction!