Scientists rank high among the cultural heroes, but there is often a tension between the professional interests and concerns of the scientist, and the demands made on him or her as a public figure.
No one illustrates this better than Galileo Galilei. One of the most brilliant minds in the history of science, he was much happier measuring the trajectory of falling weights or spending nights studying the stars through his telescope than engaging in lengthy philosophical or religious dispute. Yet force of historical circumstance determined that he should be dragged to the center of a struggle with wide and echoing ramifications; namely whether the authority of the Bible should be believed and respected over the authority of one's senses.
Much has been written about the philosophical implications of Galileo's way of seeing the natural world, a particular blend of sense experience and logical reason that has become the bedrock for modern science. From historians such as Alexander Koyre, to dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht, Galileo has been required to carry a heavy symbolic load as the standard-bearer for both free inquiry and modern scientific thought.
Prof. Stillman Drake has set out to redress the imbalance in which, he claims, this symbolic load has resulted. He seeks to rescue Galileo from the philosophers, past and present; and by taking us step by step through Galileo's writings and his correspondence with the leading astronomers and mathematicians of the day, to show us, as he puts it, "Galileo in his working clothes."
The scholarship involved in this task is daunting, and represents the fruit of many hours spent in dusty Italian libraries. Prof. Drake has painstakingly reconstructed the exact sequence of Galileo's published and unpublished notes -- using evidence such as common watermarks or changes in handwriting -- to demonstrate how certain ideas emerged and evolved over periods that ranged from days to years. And he also has shown the blind alleys and red herrings which are part of all genuine scientific inquiry.
At one level, the picture that emerges from all this is surprisingly modern. Admittedly we find Galileo grappling with ideas -- such as the concept of instantaneous speed, so foreign to the Aristotelian ideas that all motion requires a cause -- which are now familiar to any fourth grader. But we also find a scientist seeking govenment patronage for his research project; concerned about securing the patent rights to his inventions; trying to avoid charges of plagiarism when others prematurely publish his ideas; and facing a hostile bureaucracy more concerned with its own survival than with nurturing genuine innovativeness.
To all this, as well as the detailed exegesis of Galileo's scientific development, Professor Drake does ample credit. Yet in choosing to write what he describes as a "scientific biography," and by presenting this in virtually a diary format, with little attempt at overall synthesis or analysis, we are inevitably left with a one-dimensional view that ignores the full complexity of the individual. We are given a few glimpses of Galileo the man: the grief at the death of his favorite daughter, the fact that he preferred to grind his telescope lenses rather than have them made for him, the impediments of the bad health that plagued him after a summer chill caught at a relatively early age. But tantalizing as these are, they are kept strictly to the sidelines as the main topic, Galileo's scientific interests and achievements, is pursued.
It is, of course, unfair to accuse an author of not writing a different book; and Prof. Drake already has armed himself for such criticism, writing that he has purposely selected this particular division of intellectual labor in the awareness that others have carried out complementary tasks. Even accepting that this makes it unnecessary to enter the fierce philosophical arguments in which Galileo became embroiled, we may regret that we are not presented with a more detailed understanding of how his scientific interests enmeshed with issues of a more personal nature. We have recently begun to see that the boundary between the two is often lower than traditionally believed; writing a biography by listing research ideas and results comes dangerously close to learning history by memorizing dates.