Book Reviews - Spring 2020

Heaven and the Heretic

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A brilliant scientist whose life is a cautionary tale

By Sam Kean | March 2, 2020
Galileo on trial at the Inquisition in Rome in 1633. A pioneering thinker, he also
Galileo on trial at the Inquisition in Rome in 1633. A pioneering thinker, he also "could be remarkably stupid politically." (Wikimedia Commons)

Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio; Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $28

Mario Livio more or less apologizes up front for writing yet another biography of Galileo. After all, hundreds of books on the physicist already exist, so what’s left to say? Still, Livio thinks that Galileo and the Science Deniers can add to the Galileo canon in three ways. And though he succeeds with two of his aims, he comes up short on the third, albeit through no fault of his own.

The first reason Livio wrote the book is that most Galileo biographies are pretty dense. There’s a lot to cover in Galileo’s life—physics, astronomy, bastard children, his spat with the Catholic Church—and it’s all set amid the wild energy of the Italian Renaissance. You can pen a thousand pages, easy. Livio, in contrast, wanted something brisk for general readers, and at just 304 pages, his book fits the bill.

Despite the brevity, Galileo comes across as a fully human character, including his faults. For one thing, he was incapable of keeping his mouth shut. He called one scientific rival a “poisonous reptile” and the “enemy not only of me but of the entire human race.” And however brilliant, he could be remarkably stupid politically, especially in his dealings with Pope Urban VIII. Urban actually supported Galileo’s teaching of the heretical heliocentric theories of Copernicus in a limited fashion, as a calculation tool, until the scientist pushed too hard. Worse, in one of his dialogues, Galileo put Urban’s own words in the mouth of a dunce named Simplicio. Many historians blame Galileo’s conviction for heresy on his mulishness and poor judgment. Livio tries to absolve Galileo of these charges, but it’s hard not to shake your head sometimes.

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