Word play

Somewhere in the process of writing Galileo's Daughter, I came up with a method that helped me avoid repeating unusual words or phrases. Although a simple "Find" command can turn up all the inadvertent repetitions in an article or a chapter, "Find" falls short in the face of a lengthy book project with several parts. In a composition notebook with alphabet tabs, I entered words that might call attention to themselves, along with the numbers of the chapters in which they appeared. The hard part was remembering to make the entries, but after a while it became habit. I used different pages of the same notebook to achieve the same goal with The Planets. Now I keep my concordance on the computer, where it's handier and easier to alphabetize.

Although I have no need to look back at the concordances of previous books, reviewing them recalls the feeling of immersion in those subjects. In Galileo's world, words like "abstruse," "bellowed," and "capacious" found their places. The Solar System accommodated "dazzle," "extremophile," and "fumarole."

The new book belongs to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm only at the halfway point, but have already found my first opportunities to use "accouterments," "aflutter," and "unbosom." The list of "a" words, read aloud, sounds a little like a Latin conjugation: alas, alight, allot, allow, amass, apace, avow . . . .

Victim of anniversaries

My friend and mentor Owen Gingerich of Harvard once described himself as a victim of anniversaries. The 400th of Kepler's birth was the first one to affect him, in 1971, followed soon by Copernicus's 500th, in 1973. These observances changed Gingerich from an astrophysicist computing model stellar atmospheres to a full-time historian of science. This year I find myself happily "victimized" by three big-round-number commemorations. The 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act has occasioned a new hardcover edition of Longitude in the UK, and will take me to Greenwich in July for the opening of the National Maritime Museum's exhibition called "Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude." Meanwhile the 450th birthdays of Galileo (February 15) and Shakespeare (April 23) provide good excuses for musing on the connections between the two. Not only did Galileo love poetry (reading it, critiquing it, committing most of Orlando Furioso to memory, composing his own terza rima), but Shakespeare included numerous references to actual astronomical events such as novas and eclipses in his plays.

Surely they never met, as neither man ever left his home country. Shakespeare, whose life journey took him only the hundred miles between Stratford and London, nevertheless set two plays in Verona, two in Venice, two in Ancient Rome, two in Sicily, one in Padua, and one on an island full of castaways from Naples and Milan. Galileo, born in Pisa, traveled to the Moon and stars via his telescope. Only hours after his book describing these discoveries came off the press in Venice in 1610, the English ambassador there dispatched a copy to the court of King James I.  

Both Shakespeare and Galileo addressed themselves to a wide public, because they shared a higher than average opinion of the average intellect. "Sure he that made us with such large discourse," cries Hamlet, "Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused."

Similarly, Galileo published most of his books in Italian instead of Latin, so as to inform compatriots who could not afford a university education: "Now I want them to see that just as Nature has given to them, as well as to philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has also given them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them."

Let us celebrate those sentiments throughout 2014 and beyond.

Debate on floating reopened

In 1611, a little more than a year after Galileo published the celestial discoveries he'd made through his telescope, he joined a debate about floating bodies. Ice raised the question, since Galileo's contemporaries believed ice to be heavier than liquid water, despite the fact that it floated. They attributed ice's buoyancy to its flat shape, abetted by water's resistance to penetration. Galileo countered that ice must be less dense than liquid: Ice of any shape stays afloat, while ice forcibly submerged in water resurfaces with no apparent resistance.

To the modern ear, the issue sounds trivial and easily decided, but Galileo's view of ice as rarefied water threatened to unravel the prevailing philosophy of science. Therefore the discussion spread from a friend's home to a wider argument with angry contenders, numerous publications on both sides of the issue, and Galileo's defense of his position in a staged debate at the Medici court.

Last July, an international group of scientists assembled in Florence to reopen the debate because, as Barry Ninham, one of the organizers, told me via e-mail, "Galileo's topic, 'Why Ice Floats on Water,' is still not resolved." Mistakes were made on both sides. The behavior of water raises more questions now than it did then.

The meeting, called Aqua Incognita, convened in a convent for five days and drew some twenty participants from Australia, Europe, Israel, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The proceedings are soon to be published as Aqua Incognita: Why Ice Floats on Water, and Galileo 400 Years On. Topics include the properties and structure of water, water's role in biology, and the effects of light and magnetic fields on water.

"Our debates were informal and our participants were limited to 20, with occasional attendance by wives and non-specialists, as for the original debates 400 years ago," write Ninham and co-editor Pierandrea Lo Nostro in the volume's introduction. "Florence itself has many attractions, being the center of the Renaissance. So it was difficult for such a meeting to fail."

Confident that Galileo would have approved, the editors "hope these contributions will provide a useful perspective and entrée for anyone interested in water in its manifold manifestations. And an insight into the science of water for the third meeting 400 years hence."

I received an early invitation to the gathering, thanks to my account of the 1611 debate in Galileo's Daughter. Although I could not attend, Ninham and Lo Nostro have now paid me another compliment by mentioning me in their book. They dedicate Aqua Incognita to the late Enzo Ferroni, whom they describe as "the pioneer in Italy of Physical Chemistry of Colloids and Interfaces, and after the 1966 flood of Florence the first scientist to apply the science of colloids and interfaces to the restoration and conservation of works of art. And to Dava Sobel for her marvelous book, Galileo’s Daughter, which gave us the human side."


Introducing Galileo

A handsome new, illustrated edition of Galileo's great Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World will be published in June, and I was invited to write an introduction.

Of course I accepted. I like introducing other people's books. It's something I've done perhaps half a dozen times in my life, though never for anyone so revered or so long dead. Yesterday (February 15) was Galileo's 449th birthday; January 8 marked the 371st anniversary of his death.

The Dialogue -- or Dialogo in the original Italian -- is nearing four hundred years in print. Having spent its first two centuries in a state of suspended animation on the Index of Prohibited Books, it remains evergreen. A reviewer's note in the mid-February 2013 double issue of The New Yorker called Galileo's Dialogue "the most entertaining classic of science ever published."

Others have shared that opinion, including Albert Einstein, who wrote the Foreword for the 1953 English translation by the late Stillman Drake. Einstein judged the Dialogue "a downright roguish attempt" to pretend obedience to authority while in fact flouting it: "A man is here revealed who possesses the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking against the host of those who, relying on the ignorance of the people and the indolence of teachers in priest's and scholar's garb, maintain and defend their positions of authority."

Re-reading the Dialogue and retracing its tragic history for my current assignment, I reflected that I will never be asked to perform a similar service for Copernicus. Unlike Galileo, who functioned as the Carl Sagan of his day, Copernicus spoke to a small community of intellectuals who could read Latin and follow his math. Although his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, inspired Galileo and fomented a scientific revolution, one could never call it a page-turner.


Doctor Copernicus in Padua

On October 15 I had the honor of delivering a lecture about Copernicus's day job -- his lifelong service as personal physician to the bishop of Varmia -- in Padua, at the very institution where Copernicus attended medical school early in the 16th century. I was happy to return to Padua, where another of my heroes, Galileo, spent the eighteen happiest years of his life, teaching medical students how to cast horoscopes at the city's famed university.

In his Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World, Galileo makes reference to the human dissections he attended in Padua's anatomical theater, which opened in 1594 as the world's first such facility.

My Copernicus talk formed part of a lecture series conceived by cardiac pathologist Gaetano Thiene to celebrate the "Morgagni Year 2012." Three centuries ago, Giovanni Battista Morgagni arrived in the Latin quarter of Padua as a demonstrator in anatomy. He stayed for six decades, working to the day he died of a stroke in December 1771. Morgagni's long career of research and teaching immortalized him as the founder of modern anatomical pathology.

A highlight of my visit was a tour through the cabinet of curiosities in the basement of Padua's Graduate School of Clinical and Experimental Medical Sciences. Some of the collection's specimens date from the 1850s, making the jars and preservation techniques almost as interesting as the anomalies themselves.

Dividing Lines

As I travel from book store to book store in cities around the country, I find that my talk of Copernicus's Sun-centered cosmos quickly raises questions about the relationship between science and religion. Last week in New Hampshire a pamphleteer deemed Copernicus's ideas "anti-God." This week a Denver resident attacked science more broadly, bringing evolution into the discussion of heavenly revolutions. Copernicus himself conceded he feared censure from people who might twist scripture to discredit him. As a canon of the Catholic church, he could hardly have considered his own theory irreligious. Rather, it was non-religious--separate from theology. As he declared in the opening pages of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, "Mathematics is written for mathematicians." At the same time, he bowed to an omnipotent creator. "Thus vast," he wrote later in that same book, "is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty."

Nothing in Copernicus's faith prevented him from trying to understand natural philosophy on its own terms. Nor from insisting that faith alone was insufficient for probing the mysteries of the universe. Galileo, another Catholic, shared that conviction, quoting a quip by a cardinal friend of his: "The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven--not how the heavens go."

Kepler, who was so true to his Lutheran faith that he moved to another town to avoid forced conversion, agreed with Copernicus and Galileo on questions of science and religion. Kepler warned against "wantonly dragging the Holy Spirit into physics class."

An op-ed piece in The New York Times on Tuesday (October 18), "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason," added a valuable current perspective on science and religion. Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens-- a physicist and a historian, both affiliated with Eastern Nazarene College--rue the anti-intellectual rhetoric of most Republican presidential candidates. As men of faith, the authors distance themselves from fundamentalists who insist the Bible trumps all other sources of information. "When the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas," they write, "we must not be afraid to speak out."

Last night (October 19) in Milwaukee, I found another hopeful sign during the event Boswell Book Company arranged for me at Discovery World Museum. A man asked me to inscribe a copy of my book for his brother: "To Peter, who follows science and respects faith." I was happy to do it.

Time travel?

The first round of U.S. travel to promote A More Perfect Heaven landed me last Sunday (October 9) in Concord, New Hampshire as a guest of Gibson's Bookstore. Two extraordinary experiences bracketed my talk at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

First, on approaching the theater for the 7 p.m. event, I saw my name in lights.

Upon exiting later, however, after speaking to a most congenial audience, I learned that every car parked near the venue had been leafleted with anti-Copernican literature.

The headline on the three-sheet handout, "Selected Profiles in the Geocentric-Heliocentric Debate," made me think the document must be a prank. Surely no one in New England in 2011 still clung to a flat Earth or an Earth-centered cosmos. But I regret to say I was wrong.

"In the 16th century, anti-God forces waged an all out war on Biblical truth," the printed diatribe began. "Copernicus proclaimed that the earth was not stationary--in direct contradiction to the holy scriptures. With no proof, Copernicus dethroned the earth as the jewel of all creation and enthroned the sun in its place."

Since the distributor of this document did not attend my talk to confront me, I had no chance to defend Copernicus--or Galileo, who was similarly defamed on page 2: "None, but none among the fanciful assertions of the believers in Galileo's sun-centered astronomical gospel has ever been proven."

Surrounded by friendly nerds as I usually am, I've been shielded from this desperate brand of deceit. It jibed all too well with the laments I heard last month from staff at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, ruing the energy they expend fending off "deniers" who insist the Apollo landings were faked.

Things are worse than I thought.

A Date with Greatness

Often I'm asked to speak about Galileo to interested audiences, but last week The Tech Museum in San Jose invited me to speak for him--to answer a series of questions about his "personality traits" and "lifestyle preferences" as I imagined Galileo might respond. For example, would he describe himself as "shy and quiet"? Enjoy playing sports or games? Prefer eating meat to eating vegetables?

Put another way, Can an individual who lived centuries ago find a match in today's online social network? I wasn't sure I wanted to put Galileo to that test, but the Museum staff convinced me to think again. They plan a small exhibition about the "scientific formulas based on social science theories" used by dating services to connect people with similar personalities, interests, backgrounds, and values. An accompanying interactive display promising “A Date With Greatness” will allow Museum visitors to take a short quiz that tests their compatibility with characters out of history.

As someone with a longstanding crush on Galileo, I felt confident choosing the personality descriptors that pegged him as "warm," "sympathetic," "adventurous," and "open to new experiences." I was sure he'd like "watching movies, concerts, and plays" (well, concerts and plays), just as much as "making art, music, or new inventions." Asked to list hobbies and other interests, I offered that he loved writing letters and verses, also debating, and playing the lute, although I wasn't sure these qualities would appeal to the middle- and high-school students in the exhibition's target audience. You never know.

The Museum didn't ask for a picture, but I engaged in a little "cyber-stalking" to see what images might be available for their purpose. Galileo counted several well known artists among his acquaintances, a few of whom drew or painted his likeness. Unfortunately, all the portraits depicted him as a bearded old man. Tucked in among these head shots, however, was a lone photo of a genuine stud--a handsome piece of horseflesh also named Galileo.

According to ematings.com, an online matchmaker service for thoroughbreds, 12-year-old Galileo is currently stallion of the week, stallion of the month, and stallion the year.

Looking ahead, I've asked the Tech Museum to consider adding shy, quiet Copernicus to their roster of Greatness Date candidates.


Playfully en route to Jupiter

The Juno spacecraft, designed to peer through the cloud layers of Jupiter just as the mythical Juno saw through her husband's high jinks, launched last Friday from Cape Canaveral. In addition to its suite of scientific instruments, Juno bears a plaque honoring Galileo, the discoverer of the giant planet's four largest moons. Also aboard the solar-powered spacecraft -- and causing much e-mail controversy among the members of HASTRO-L (the history of astronomy discussion group) -- is a trio of Lego figurines: a bearded and telescope-toting Galileo, a longer-bearded Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek pantheon) with a thunderbolt in hand, and a child-like female carrying an oversized magnifying glass to represent the investigative Juno (Hera), who was both sister and wife to the king of the gods.

"Unbelievable!" a physics and astronomy professor exclaimed in disgust as soon as the news and photo hit the HASTRO list. Another concurred in finding the Lego group aesthetically distasteful: "Of all the representations of Jupiter and Juno that are available..."

However, for every subscriber who questioned the threesome's right to passage ("I wonder how much Lego is contributing to the cost of this mission for all this free advertising?"), another spoke in the toys' defense: "I credit most of my software-designing skills to playing with Lego." "As an undergrad engineering student, I anecdotally recall that Lego was a pretty common experience for those who entered many engineering fields."

A historian of science reported that she had shared the news story with her 37-year-old son, asking how he thought "sentient Jovians" might respond to the Lego people. He replied, "They'll probably wonder why we didn't send more sets along for them to play with."

A couple of older discussants opined that the more senior Meccano "provided much better education in engineering."

The first scoffer rejoined the conversation at this point to lament, "Seriously, this is another indication that the great vision and sense of wonder which once surrounded our space program is gone....instead of having a truly inspirational educational program for the next generation of space scientists and engineers...maybe a student-run experiment from Jupiter...NASA has decided to send Lego blocks...what a disgrace!" But a foreign correspondent told him to lighten up, pointing out that in fact Juno carries a color camera, "Junocam," for the specific purpose of wow-ing students and the public at large with the first-ever photos of Jupiter's aurora-rich north and south poles.

Just before the debate detoured into the psychological motivations for sending "little keep-sakes into space," a retired pastor recalled the gold-anodized recording of Earth sights and sounds adorning the two Voyager spacecraft. He asked fellow list subscribers to "imagine the perplexity of an alien race that found both the Lego and the golden record!"


Revisiting Galileo

Recently I’ve been revisiting Galileo—in Italy. The American Academy in Rome invited me to participate in its 400th anniversary celebration of the night, April 14, 1611, when he demonstrated his telescope to important patrons atop the Roman hill called the Gianicolo, on an estate now belonging to the Academy. Most of the 2011 event took place outdoors, in imitation of the original banquet, although the weather proved not as cooperative. I hadn’t spoken two words into the microphone before a fine drizzle began falling, and several of the late-night activities—including, alas, the star-gazing—were heavily rained out. You can see highlights of the evening here.  

My brother Steve, who had never before been to Italy, accompanied me. Naturally I wanted to show him as many Galileo sights as possible. As we stood before Galileo’s tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence, it occurred to me that I’d visited this grave site more often than the one where our own parents are buried. But then, I don’t need to go any particular place to feel connected to them.


Steve and I spent a day at Galileo’s other Florentine shrine, the newly renovated and re-named Museo Galileo (formerly the Institute and Museum of the History of Science) near the Uffizi Gallery. Two early telescopes and related representations of his handiwork are on display there, along with several new-found relics: A tooth, thumb, and forefinger now stand beside the more famous bone fragments from the middle finger of his right hand.


From Florence we took a train to Padua, where Galileo claimed to have spent the happiest years of his life, and where more bones awaited us. While visiting the university, “Il Bo,” we learned how a bit of a genuine Galilean vertebra, owned by the School of Medicine, almost gained passage aboard the Juno spacecraft, bound for Jupiter from Cape Canaveral this August. The mission will study the giant planet’s four largest moons, first discovered by Galileo in 1610 and now called the Galilean satellites.


The request from Juno’s principal investigator led to a thorough analysis of the bone, to make certain a tiny piece could be excised without damage to the rest. Although medical examiners approved the operation, astronomers ultimately shied away from the prospect of sending any part of the real Galileo into space. A plaque honoring his name will likely board Juno in his stead, and perhaps also a toy-sized replica of his person.