Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Galileo was a blogger, starry-eyed at that

Holly wrote a fine post a few weeks ago about why she blogs.  Her point?  Science blogging is a major way science is communicated now.  There are many many great science blogs out there, and the number is growing all the time.  So many academics are blogging that promotion and tenure committees and college deans are just going to have to consider it when they evaluate their faculty.  Talk about impact factor.  Sure, we can quibble about how impact should be quantified, but that's a problem that can be solved. Meanwhile, good blogging will enhance the visibility of the blogger's department and school, will increase and even make the blogger's reputation, will be a vehicle with which the blogger sharpens her thinking about the topic of the day, and most importantly, will communicate science in an immediate, effective, interactive way to anyone and everyone with access to a computer.

Blogging carries information, but with a much more immediate sense of the excitement, and the controversies, that scientific discoveries involve.  It communicates across a broad swath of society, and public engagement is important for many reasons.

But: blogging is not new!
It's well-known that Galileo was a rebel, the "Father of Modern Science", a believer in observation and experimentation, astronomer, champion of Copernicus, irritant to the Catholic church, but it's less well-known that he was a blogger.  A fine BBC 4 radio program, Great Lives, tells the story.

Galileo seems to have come by his iconoclasm naturally.  His father, Vincenzo Gallilei (1520-1591), was a late Renaissance musician, a lutenist, composer and theorist who challenged the contemporary view of music.  He wrote an important dialogue discussing alternative views of music theory, and was one of the leading voices of the musical revolution that led into the Baroque period.

It is said that the father was instrumental in the making of the son, the observational scientist, because he himself applied method to how he investigated music.  He was also a man who valued thinking about and questioning accepted theory, as well as communicating ideas, and perhaps this, too, was a major influence on his son.  But Galileo was rebellious, too.  His father wanted him to study medicine, but he was more interested in math and physics.

Galileo is reputed to have been a great teacher, a man with charisma "at the top of his game in explaining and communicating to people" (to quote physicist Dr David Berman, Galileo expert on the program).  He loved being popular, talking to important people and impressing them -- "it was a political thing for him".  It's significant that he wrote in common Italian, regional dialects even, because he was writing for people who might be interested in learning but didn't have access to rarefied Latin tomes.

Berman tells the story of Galileo being asked, "Don't people need shepherds?" His reply was something along the lines of, "People only need shepherds if you're in a jungle and you can't see the way.  If you can just illuminate the way, and everything is clear, people can see for themselves."

But, according to Berman, he didn't want to just explain.  He also wanted to change the way in which people viewed the world.  And to do this he began to dismantle the way science had been done for 2000 years, since the time of Aristotle, including the idea of absolutes such as that the moon was a perfect round sphere.  He believed in observation, in experiments that could begin to approximate the truth.

So, he made lenses for telescopes, and instruments that allowed him to make observations with which he challenged the standard view of the cosmos.  In his first book, The Starry Messenger (or Sidereus Nuncia), published in vernacular in 1610, and a quick sensational best-seller across Europe, he said, and showed with drawings, that his new tool revealed that the moon had mountains, and wasn't a perfect round sphere as had been thought for many centuries, and he wasn't afraid to say so.  "It is a very beautiful thing, and most gratifying to the sight, to behold the body of the moon, distant from us by almost 60 early radii, as if it were no farther away than two such measures..." and "Perhaps other things, still more remarkable, will in time be discovered...with the aid of such an instrument." And, later, "We shall prove the earth to be a wandering body surpassing the moon in splendor, and not the sink of all dull refuse of the universe; this we shall support by an infinitude of arguments drawn from nature."  Today's popular science writers and journalists can't top that!

What Galileo reported with such elegance was a shock, but among other things, confirmed his idea that truth had to be built from observation, not belief.  And the public had to accept the realities of reality!

It was Galileo's questioning of not just the hoary Aristotelian world-view but the nature of the universe itself that got him into trouble with the Church.  However, he was politically astute and managed not to be burnt at the stake, even at the cost of house arrest for the final years of his life.  But, the word got out.  His book, and another in dialogue form that was widely readable, promoting, among other things, the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun. He did another, later volume also in dialogue form, about basic physics, where he studied gravity, physical forces, and even relativity before Einstein. 

Galileo knew that the way to influence people's thinking was exactly this -- accessible dialogues in classical Platonic form, that were very accessible to the lay reader, and had rather ignorant foils (e.g., a character named Simplicio) whose arguments (often those of the accepted view) were easy to dismiss in Galileo's clever way.  Here is an illustration for his 'Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems' in which he challenged the earth-centered view the universe:

These works were quite successful and, although it took a while for the Church to realize it, the ideas were catching on.  When the Church did recognize this and tried him, it wasn't for heresy per se, but for going against the papal order not to teach (though there was some doubt as to whether the order had ever been given).  The genie had been blogged right out of the bottle!

By the time he died, Galileo's books were widely known and he had been communicating, even when in house arrest imposed by the Church, with well-known scientists throughout Europe.  His ideas were not only widely known, but well-accepted.  This was so even by some of the leading Church scholars, whether or not they could publicly say so.  He was a great communicator.  He would have had great glee at the stir he caused, the attention it received, and his deep reach into society....just like today's best bloggers.

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