A New Center

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies

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:

Wootton’s lectures and pop culture additions include:

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.

Giant Before Us

Isaac Newton

By James Gleick

Published by Pantheon

Copyright: © 2003

Isaac Newton at 46

James Gleick left Harvard in 1976 with a degree in English and a disposition towards independence from the 9 to 5. His initial attempt at independence after college was launching a weekly newspaper in the midwest city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. This endeavor ended in failure within a year, and it would take another 10 years before he could leave his day job, succeeding as an author of history of science and a provider of internet service in New York City.

His first book, Chaos: Making a New Science, was critically acclaimed and a million copy best seller establishing Gleick as a first-rate storyteller of difficult subjects to the lay public. He wrote two other bestsellers, both biographies, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman in 1992 and Isaac Newton nine years later.

Gleick presents Newton’s life in chronological order, painting a beautiful portrait of his acheivements but also imparting a sense of his being as a human. His accomplishments were beyond exceptional, but his temperament was that of a reluctant member of society at large, not easily befriended, easy to offend, and not quick to forgive. Current hypotheses suggest that Newton may have suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, one of the milder forms of autism. As a social being he appears a lot like Beethoven, also a genius but also without grace or courtesy.

Issac Newton was born fatherless, on Christmas Day in 1642 according to the Julian calendar, still in use in England at the time, or the less interesting 4 January 1643 by the today’s Gregorian calendar, on a sheep farmstead far north of London in Lincolnshire County. His father died about three months before his birth and in three years he was shuffled off to a grandmother’s care for the next 9 years to keep him away and out of site from his mother’s new husband, Reverend Barnabas Smith. His early education was at the ancient King’s School, already more than two hundred years old when he entered in 1655 and still operates as an all-boys grammer school to this day. Upon finishing at King’s School, he entered Trinity College at Cambridge in 1661 and, except for a year away in 1665, he stayed as a student and professor until 1696. Immediately following Cambridge, he became Warden of the King’s Mint and in 1703 became president of the Royal Society and stayed in that position until he died in 1727.

Newton’s contributions to the world were many and varied. His Three Laws of Motion were revolutionary in the 18th century, and as a testament to their lasting correctness are still taught to every school kid early in their education. The Law of Gravitation explained the orbit of the heavenly bodies and why apples fall and not rise, float, or go sideways. It has since been replaced by Einstein’s General Relativity but is still a particularly good approximation for us lessor mortals. Calculus. Enough said.

Newton also intensely studied the bible, believing that the universe could only exist through the existence of God. He rejected the Trinity believing there is one God, God the Father with Jesus and the Holy Spirit subservient to God. Newton also predicted that the end of times would not come before 2060, 38 short years from now. Still a little early to be maxing out your credit cards.

Newton researched and experimented with alchemy, including looking for the Philosophers Stone and the force that keeps the planets in their orbits. Seeking the Philosophers Stone may have been worthy of Harry Potter but I’m not sure about Newton. Newton never published anything on his alchemy studies, likely because it didn’t make any sense. Now looking for the force that kept planets from falling your head during a walk-in park was worthy of Newton and the rest of the world, especially Einstein. Newton found it and it was called gravity.

My one complaint with Gleick’s book is his derisive commenting on Newton’s fascination with alchemy through today’s lens of knowledge rather than accepting that understanding and meaning in this world changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. People respond to the time they live in not to the unknowns of the future. Newton put it this way, “What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.” and one can only study the drop that he has.

One of my favorite quotes of Newton or anyone for that matter was, “A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true.” I liked this quote when I first saw it, not because it was profound, it was, but because it was an idea I had promulgated early on in my education, if it didn’t make logical sense, it probably was wrong.

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