Sunday, November 27, 2011


Cover of book from York University Press website

I just finished reading a book about Galileo written by David Wootton published by York University Press. Galileo was born in 1564 and died in 1642 which puts him squarely in the Renaissance, on of the most interesting periods in history. He was one of the founders of modern science, committed to science yet forced to bow to religion. He was a brilliant mathematician yet he was inept socially.

In his book, David Wootton looks at Galileo as an astronomer, an engineer and a writer. He worked from original documents such as Galileo's letters that he wrote and received. using this material he pieced together a vivid picture of Galileo. from his youth through his tumultuous formative years, to his discoveries in astronomy and physics.

Galileo was one if the first to understand how the telescope could be used as a tool to explore the cosmos.

"Philosophy is written in this very great book which always lies open before our eyes (I mean the universe), but one cannot understand it unless one first learns to understand the language and recognize the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language and the characters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures; without these means it is humanly impossible to understand a word of it; without these there is only clueless scrabbling around in a dark labyrinth."

The passage above is Galileo's most famous quote. It was Galileo's commitment to a realist theory of knowledge. his point of view was that mathematics is the language of science. Newton may have developed calculus but he built it on the foundation established by Galileo and his students.

Wootton's purpose in writing the book was to provide an intellectual biography of the one of the world's greatest scientists; Galileo. he wanted to demonstrate the evolution of Galileo's thinking over time. In Galileo's book, The Dialogue, published in 1632 he argues that the universe does not serve humanity. Galileo's universe is mysterious and unknown. It's size is unknowable. Galileo even argues that there are probably other planets with other beings. We on earth are simply terrestrials.

Galileo was the first true, modern scientist. He invented the thermometer, the micrometer, and the pendulum clock. he transformed the telescope from a toy into a tool for serious scientific investigation. I thoroughly enjoyed the book by David Wootton. I would recommend to everyone who has an interest in science.

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