Galileo biography draws parallels to science denialism

Galileo biography draws parallels to science denialism

In basketball, legends are often known by first name alone: LeBron, Kobe, Michael. Same with entertainers: Madonna, Cher, Beyoncé.

But lists of scientific legends almost always include surnames, never just Isaac or Albert or Charles. Among the titans of modern scientific lore, only one is generally referred to exclusively by a first name: Galileo.

The man had a last name: Galilei. But fewer people know his surname than know he was one of the primary founders of modern science. Galileo merged mathematics with natural philosophy and quantitative experimental methodology to provide a foundation for understanding nature on nature’s terms, rather than Aristotle’s.

Galileo’s life has been well-documented. Dozens of biographies have been written about him since the first by Vincenzo Viviani, published in 1717 (but composed before Thomas Salusbury’s English language Galileo biography of 1664). As recently as 2010, two major scholarly biographies (by David Wootton and John Heilbron) analyzed Galileo’s life and science in great depth.

But with the lives of legends, there is always a license to produce yet another interpretation. In Galileo and the Science Deniers, astrophysicist Mario Livio has invoked that license to tell Galileo’s story once more, this time with a particular concern for Galileo’s relevance to science today (and the impediments to its acceptance). “In a world of governmental antiscience attitudes with science deniers at key positions,” Livio writes, “Galileo’s tale serves … as a potent reminder of the importance of freedom of thought.”

Livio also set out to produce a biography more accessible to a general reader than the typical scholarly tomes. And he succeeded. His commentaries comparing Galileo’s time to today’s are weaved into an engagingly composed and pleasantly readable account.

In Livio’s view, today’s deniers of climate change science or the validity of evolutionary theory are comparable to the religious opponents of Galileo’s scientific views, particularly his insistence on the motion of the Earth around the sun. Serving that end, the book is not an in-depth biography as much as a summary of Galileo’s life and science, plus a thorough recounting of the events leading up to his famous trial. Livio plays the role of a highly capable legal commentator in analyzing the issues raised during the trial, including discussion of the questionable tactics by the prosecution and Galileo’s not always effective defense.

 

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