Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why Galileo matters

OK, this may be a little long-winded in our nanosecond culture, but it bears reading slowly. Galileo and his contemporaries did not have quite the same need for white space we crave now; I took the liberty of adding it--Galileo would have been a kick-butt blogger, and would likely approve.

In this passage Galileo is explaining to a friend why he wrote in Italian instead of the more scholarly Latin:

I wrote in the colloquial tongue because I must have everyone able to read it, and for the same reason I wrote my last book in this language, I am induced to do this by seeing how young men are sent through the universities at random to be made physicians, philosophers, and so on; thus many of them are committed to professions for which they are unsuited, while other men who would be fitted for these are taken up by family cares and other occupations remote from literature.

The latter are...furnished with 'horse sense,' but because they are unable to read things that are 'Greek to them' they become convinced that in those 'big books there are great new things of logic and philosophy and still more that is way over their heads.'

Now I want them to see that just as nature has given them, as well as to philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has given them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them.

Galileo, quoted in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, translated by Stillman Drake, Anchor Books, New York, 1957, pp. 84-5

I love reading Galileo--he wrote for people, not pedantics, and thumbed his nose at the philosophers bent on fitting the physical world with "known" universal truths, the Gabe Kotter of Florence.

He gets a little flack for the whole recanting thing, but under the circumstances (he was older than the hills, Galileo's latest book had already been snatched up by his fans anyway, and a contemporary (Giordana Bruno) burned at the stake in 1600), seemed like a prudent move.

Too many students no longer trust their "horse sense"--and many are a lot brighter than they know. Half the battle is reminding them this.


jasekj919 said...

Now there was a man who saw the potential in each person. That was a very interesting read, and I bookmarked the quote. It's not surprising that some of our greatest minds were more concerned with spreading knowledge rather than hoarding it for the elite.

Clay Burell said...

I love this post. I had an old class blog I called "Galileo's Ghost" (a sucker for alliteration I am) because I'm a big fan.

And Bruno? In my book, the first sci-fi writer in the Western world. To get burned at the stake for speculating out loud that there might be life on other planets :(

At least the Church did the right thing and took Galileo's book of the Index of Forbidden Books - though a bit tardily (the same year the Soviet Union collapsed, I believe).

doyle said...

@jasekj919: it gets complicated, for sure. I think anyone who pursues knowledge for its own sake (or rather for the purpose of advancing one's understanding of the world) can't help but want to share. Spreading information is easy; knowledge requires at least a modicum of effort on the part of the student. The sad thing is that students start school oozing with effort.

@clay: Bruno's an interesting footnote in history. I suspect that he got cooked as much for his tendency to piss people off as his out-there ideas. I used to impress upon my medical students that you don't get sued for screwing up, you get sued for acting like a butt-head. Still, no one deserves to be burned at the stake.