What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution by Lawrence Lipking

what galileo saw“What people saw then, what people see now, depends on the kind of story they might choose to tell.”

😀 😀 😀 😀

This quote, taken from the preface, is a good summary of Lipking’s argument in this interesting and original look at the period known as the Scientific Revolution – running roughly between the publications of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory (1543) and Newton’s Principia (1687). He sets out to show that the discoveries that were made in this period were interpreted through the prism of the existing ‘imagined world’ while at the same time, and on into the future, contributing to its gradual change – a process he suggests is continuing to the present day. To make his case, he expands beyond science to look at literature and philosphy, showing the interconnection of all three in interpreting and re-interpreting the new discoveries.

Some of this is fairly well covered ground, especially the beginnings of the religion v. science debate – the resistance of the Church to anything that impinged on existing doctrine, the attempts of many scientists to fit their discoveries into the contemporaneous religious view of creation, and the failure of some to do so, leading to accusations of heresy.

Galileo's drawings of the phases of the moon
Galileo’s drawings of the phases of the moon

But what is much less familiar, to me at least, is Lipking’s argument that artistic creativity had as great an impact as rational thought in driving and making sense of the new revelations in all the major fields of science. To argue his case, Lipking spends as much time analysing the work of poets, writers and philosophers as he does looking at the achievements of the scientists. Starting with Milton, he shows how poetry and philosophy dealt with the passing of old myths in favour of the new science – sometimes with regret and nostalgia, but also helping to formulate a newly ‘imagined world’ to take account of the discoveries. He takes extracts from Shakespeare, Donne, and Wordsworth, amongst others, and convincingly shows how symbolism in poetry changed over time, as poets took account of the realism that science had introduced into views of the natural world. This is done in depth, usually using well-known passages, and I found it made me see them afresh with much more awareness of their historical context. And he also shows how philosophers such as Descartes and Bacon contributed to the creation and interpretation of the ‘imagined world’ in which both science and art operated.

Milton was well informed: he had met Galileo and seems to have looked through telescopes and read some recent astronomy books. Apparently the angel Raphael had also read them. He answers Adam’s questions about the universe, in book 8 of ‘Paradise Lost’, with a brief version of Galileo’s ‘Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems’, comparing Ptolemaic or geocentric explanations with Copernican heliocentrism. But unlike Galileo he does not take sides, and in the end discourages Adam from choosing…

But Lipking also argues that art was essential to the progress of science, partly as I’ve already mentioned by imagining the world anew, but also because scientists themselves were obliged to be able to draw and write in order to disseminate their findings. He also highlights the distinction between the ability to see and the ability to perceive, suggesting that the latter was as important in science as in art. For example, he points out that some people couldn’t see what Galileo saw when he looked into the sky, even using the same equipment, suggesting that part of the reason for this is that our perceptions are governed by our expectations. Galileo and the other scientists were open to the possibility that existing perceptions were wrong, so were able to ‘see’ past them. But he also shows that, having made their discovery and built a new ‘imagined world’ around them, many of the scientists then took just as entrenched defensive positions as the ones they had helped overturn.

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

As a final strand, Lipking looks throughout at how the Scientific Revolution itself has been perceived over time, showing that its story has also been re-imagined by succeeding generations. He draws attention to the fact that many of the scientists who are today revered as the forerunners of rational thought held some views that would now seem to us to be superstition: for example, Newton’s obsession with alchemy. And he also discusses some of the great discoveries of the period which have subsequently been disproven or, more often, proven to have been misinterpreted. Overall, the book gives a good reminder that the scientific certainties of each generation might only last until new information becomes available – or until a new world is imagined around them. The thrust is forward, but not always in a straight line.

Lawrence Lipking
Lawrence Lipking

This is a complex book which I feel requires the reader to have at least a basic understanding of the major scientific advances of the period – that is, to understand them in general, rather than in scientific, terms – since Lipking seems to make the not unreasonable assumption that interested readers will have an existing level of familiarity with them. Some knowledge of the poetry, plays and philosophers of the period would be helpful too, though I felt Lipking explained and illustrated these aspects more fully as he went along. Personally, I found I was struggling from time to time through lack of background knowledge, especially on the questions of philosophy – hence the loss of 1 star for me, though I suspect it would be a five-star read for someone coming to it better informed. But for the most part I found the book both fascinating and thought-provoking, full of ideas that are still very relevant when looking at how scientific advances are treated today.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cornell University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

29 thoughts on “What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution by Lawrence Lipking

    • Yes, the stuff about poetry and suchlike was very interesting. But brush up your knowledge of Descartes before you go in – that was the bit I struggled most with…

  1. Golly, this looks pretty mouthwatering . . . and sounds as if it’d make an interesting comparison with Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, which covers roughly similar territory. I must put it on the list . . .

  2. I absolutely love the fact that he’s looking both at science and at artistic endeavor. When you think about it, they are two sides of the same prism. They influence each other (always have done), too. In fact, if I may digress, I had the privilege once of seeing a fabulous exhibit of da Vinci’s scientific drawings. That is, these were pieces of art depicting scientific things such as his idea for a flying machine. So good to hear that there is a reasoned perspective out there on how these different ways of looking at life have been integrated.

    • Yes, it was interesting to see someone bring them together this way. Usually history books are about one or the other, though modern science books often refer to science fiction, which when done well is as creative as other kinds of art. Oh, I’d like to see da Vinci’s drawings – that was partly his point – that back then science depended very much on people with artistic skills because of the necessity of drawn illustrations…

    • Yes, I like when authors come at things from a slightly different angle – more interesting than a straight history of the Scientific Revolution would have been…

  3. This sounds fascinating! I’m sure I’d need to do some other reading before picking up this one though as I don’t have much knowledge on the subject! Great review 🙂

    • Thanks, Gemma! It is! I wouldn’t want to put you off – my own knowledge of the subject is pretty superficial, but I felt that having a rough idea of what Copernicus, Galileo and Newton in particular added was useful, and as far as the philosophy went, it was the stuff about Descartes that left me struggling. Must read a nice little summary of his stuff sometime, if I can find one… I feel a 500-page tome might be beyond me!

  4. This sounds right up my street! Have you read ‘Newton and the Counterfeiter’? It is an absolutely fascinating story of Isaac Newton and fits in his alchemical work alongside his scientific discoveries, but then goes on to tell the story of how he went on to run the Royal mint and his battle with the the many people in London counterfeiting money. I had never heard that part of his story before and it gripped me from beginning to end. Well worth a read.

    • Yes! It was a good one – in fact, it was the first book about science/scientists that I’d read in years, and was really the one that encouraged me to read more. I don’t know anything about the science side of science, if you know what I mean, but I find the story of the scientists fascinating. And I’m hoping one day I’ll have read so much that suddenly a miracle will happen, and I’ll understand the Theory of Relativity… 😉

  5. Whoa…this sounds like an intense book! Intense, but highly rewarding. I’m guessing it was one of your bricks?

    What think you of Newton’s hair? It it a wig? Or do you suppose, rats are chewing it?

    • Not as huge as some, but I found I could only cope with very small chunks at a time, so it took ages to read. My poor little brain needs regular rest and chocolate…

      *laughs* Wouldn’t it be lovely to think it was real? I suspect he wore it as a form of protection against apples unexpectedly dropping from trees. Hmm…do you think your tree might have been trying to give you some huge scientific revelation?

      • Of course you could take a calculus course. I hear that exercises the brain lots and lots.

        No! That would be a horrible thought. Who would want that…hair alive?! Apples and acorns. *laughs* I think he was just mad at how many times I popped knives off him.

        • I’m pretty sure it was learning about calculus that broke my brain in the first place!

          Oh, it’s quite pretty! Well, I can kinda see his point then! I think he let you off lightly…

  6. I love this kind of book and you’ve made me realize that I haven’t read nonfiction in a while. I’ll definitely be adding this one to my – ever-growing- list.

    • Oh, good! I love non-fiction as much as fiction really, though it’s harder work. This is definitely an interesting one – if you do get to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s