Galileo

Patricia Fara enjoys a witty life of an astronomical great

Galileo
Author: JL Heilbron
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: Patricia Fara
Price (RRP): £20

Elderly erudite academics can have a dry sense of humour, and JL Heilbron’s Galileo is no ordinary eulogy. Possessing sufficient astrological expertise to make witty comments about his eponymous hero’s birth charts, Heilbron also displays the theological nous needed for analysing the Vatican’s recent tortuous attempts to assimilate a scientific martyr.

Within the next four centuries, predicts Heilbron, Galileo will become a Catholic saint whose holy relics include his telescope lens and one of two competing right index fingers.

Heilbron presents Galileo not as a gifted mathematician, but as a critic, a cultured connoisseur who would have frittered away his time in pleasurable verbal jousting if he had not been forced to earn his living.

A dexterous craftsman and diligent observer, it was not until middle age that Heilbron’s Galileo was abruptly converted into a megalomaniacal knight errant who was ready to offend even the most prestigious of opponents.

As well as witticisms, Heilbron delights in scholarly details, and this book bears ample testimony to his assiduous research. To understand Galileo, writes Heilbron, we have to reject any notion that he behaved like a modern scientist.

The physics here is intertwined with poetry, politics and philosophy. Even though the mathematical expositions are illustrated by modern diagrams, Heilbron is probably over-optimistic in assuming that any high-school graduate will be able to follow the arguments.

Innovative as his approach may be, Heilbron still resorts to old-fashioned conventions by labelling Galileo a miracle-maker who led the Scientific Revolution. Or is that perhaps his super-subtle joke? 

Patricia Fara is the author of Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford University Press, 2009)

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