By David Wootton
Published by Yale University Press
Copyright: © 2010
David Wootton, age 71, is the Anniversary Professor (a named professor in the British system is equivalent to a full professor in the American system…I believe) of History at the University of York in England. His work ranges from the history of the individual to the wider-ranging histories, and philosophies of ideas that shaped our world. His published interests concentrate on the Renaissance but stretch back to the Greeks and forward to the embryonic American experiment. He is an old-school historian with his scholarship supported by the evidence available coupled with the existing mores of the times. His selection of topics that I have read or perused suggests a thorough dearth of confidence in past historical interpretations and a jaundiced view of present sense and sensibilities. Or more succinctly and in his own words, “History is always about a particular time, a particular place; it is always about groups more than it is about individuals; it is always the history of somewhere.” and if I may so boldly add, it is always the history of (some)time.
Wootton’s written works (books) include:
- Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment (1983)
- Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates (2006)
- Galileo: Watcher of the Skies (2010)
- The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (2015)
- Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison (2018)
Wootton’s lectures and pop culture additions include:
- Raleigh Lecture on History: Deities, Devils, and Dams (2008 Text)
- Benedict Lecture: Shakespeare Skirmishes (2014 No Text Available)
- Besterman Lecture: Adam Smith, Poverty, and Famine (2017 Podcast)
- BBC Radio 4 In Our Time: The Fable of the Bees (2018 Podcast)
- History Today: What’s Wrong with Liberalism? (2018 Text)
Wootton’s biography of Paolo Sarpi, a contemporary and patron of Galileo, likely provided, albeit 27 years later, the impetus and scholarship for Wootton publishing his second biography in 2006 on that aforementioned watcher of the skies. Sarpi, a devout Copernican and a supposedly not so devout Catholic supported Galileo’s heliocentric theories and shielded him, for a time, from his Roman inquisitors. Parenthetically, Wootton in his book on Galileo almost apologizes for writing biographies mainly because his peers look down on the genre, a sentiment I used to harbor but I now appreciate the category because they provide the who to the what, where, and when.
Bad Medicine, Wootton’s second book, postulates that doctors have dispensed more harm than good, beginning with Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C and continuing through to the present day. Covid or the Wuhan Flu pandemic will not provide the medical profession with the needed catharsis to dispel Wootton’s conjecture.
In The Invention of Science Wootton walks us through the birth of the scientific method starting with a supernova shining in the Renaissance night sky of the 1500s and culminating with Newton’s discovery that visible light contains a plethora, or at least 7 wavelengths and hues in the early 1700s.
In Power, Pleasure, and Profit, Wootton expands on the concept of selfishness driving all human progress. A concept, although anathema to all Christian and Western ethics and morality, was espoused by Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in the early 1500s and Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, also known as The Grumbling Hive, first published in 1705.
Wootton’s Besterman Lecture: Adam Smith, Poverty, and Famine, we find out that charity is not a word in Smith’s vocabulary. Academics and maybe the rest us can really get into the weeds.
And finally, before I get into Galileo, The BBC devoted 40 minutes interviewing four guests, Wootton being one of them, on The Fable of the Bees, written initially as a poem, as stated above, by Bernard Mandeville and expanded into a book length dissertation sub-titled Private Vices, Publick Benefits which proposes that personal pleasure and greed drive human progress not altruism or Christian charity.
Galileo, born in the small city of Pisa, Italy in 1564, lived to the astronomical age of 77, some 25 years beyond the average lifespan for that era. He spent his final years blind, serving a life sentence, originally in a papal prison but eventually the prison was exchanged for confinement to his home located in a small village outside of Florence. His crime was for authoring a book defending the heliocentric model of the universe as theorized by Copernicus in 1543 rather than promoting the geocentric model as demanded by the Catholic Church.
Galileo was a tinkerer and thinker more akin to our modern definition of an engineer rather than a scientist, taking innovative ideas and novel inventions to the next level. He didn’t invent the telescope, Hans Lippershay of the Netherlands in 1608 did, but Galileo’s design quickly became the standard and he eventually increased Lippershay’s 3x magnification to 23-30x. His leaden tube with a convex lens in one end and concave lens in the other end discovered the mountains and plains of the moon, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, possibly the planet Neptune, individual stars of the Milky Way, and sunspots. Today we can purchase a 30x set of binoculars for less than $100 which we use to peep through our neighbors’ windows and watch songbirds in the meadow across the street. All his discoveries aided in the proof of a heliocentric universe, his universe being mostly what we would refer to today as the solar system. Our discoveries prove that our neighbors are weird.
Galileo was a fascinating man and genus who introduced the world to a new way of advancing our knowledge of the world and the universe. His tinkering and thinking were the rudimentary beginnings of what we now call the scientific method–observe, hypothesize, test, repeat.
His proof of Copernicus’ theory was mostly correct. The Church’s defense of the geocentric model wasn’t. The Church admitted their error in 1992.