Ten Things I Learned About Galileo This Week (that I may or may not have known before)

I’ve been snatching moments to read Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel – a biography of Galileo and his family. I only knew the elementary school basics before, and I’m finding that he was a fascinating man. It’s especially interesting to draw comparisons to today – when our models and ideas of how the world works continue to be upended by new research and calculations.

Below are some of the things I found especially fascinating about Galileo – call it a book report, if you will.

1) Galileo was his first name. I did technically know this before, but it never occurred to me to be curious about it. Why is Galileo known for his first name like Madonna or Cher, instead of his last name like Mozart or Shakespeare or Einstein?

At first I thought that maybe it was a trend of the times. But when I looked up Galileo’s contemporaries, we know them all by their last names: Shakespeare, born the same year as Galileo; Descartes, born about 30 years after Galileo was born (who held off publishing a book of his own on the Copernican system when he heard the verdict of Galileo’s trial); etc, etc. It doesn’t seem to be an Italian thing, either: Machiavelli, for example (incidentally, I learned that both Botticelli and Donatello weren’t the artists’ real names while researching this).

Fortunately, others have wondered this same question and I found a Slate article on the topic. The simple answer is: we call Galileo Galileo because that’s what he chose to be called.

2) Galileo really didn’t mean to be a rebel.

Galileo sincerely believed in Catholicism. He sincerely believed in science. And he believed that because science could never contradict religion, then any discoveries he made only served to illuminate misinterpretations of the Bible. He went out of his way to demonstrate that his theories actually helped to support the Biblical text, in particular the story of Moses asking that the sun hold still. He pointed out that many things in the Bible were not taken literally, and that it would be blasphemous to do so.

It’s worth noting here that many people in the church really thought that Galileo was a wonderful person and scientist.

3) He learned how to be a rebel from his father, as illustrated by this wonderful quote:

“It appears to me, that they who in proof of any assertion rely simply on the weight of authority, without adducing any argument in support of it, act very absurdly. I, on the contrary, wish to be allowed freely to question and freely to answer you without any sort of adulation, as well becomes those who are in search of truth.”

– Vincenzio Galilei, father to Galileo Galilei

To re-state: Galileo believed in the pursuit of knowledge. He believed that this knowledge could only enhance his appreciation of a God-made world, and that to stifle the exploration of science could only support blasphemy.

4) At the same time, Galileo was great at flattery. It helped when you had something he wanted … like the ability to give him an appointment as the Chief Mathematician of the University of Pisa and Philosopher and Mathematician to the Grand Duke:

“Your highness … scarcely have the immortal graces of your soul begun to shine forth on Earth than bright stars offer themselves in the heavens which, like tongues, will speak of and celebrate your most excellent virtues for all time…”

Incidentally, Galileo’s dedication of the moons of Jupiter (as described in the quote above) to the Grand Duke also helped his business, because when other scientists questioned whether these celestial bodies existed at all, Galileo naturally had to supply them with his superior, homemade telescopes – to protect the Grand Duke’s honor.

5) Art and science were far more entwined in Galileo’s time than in the modern day. Part of what fascinates me about Galileo is that all of his great discoveries were simply the result of him following tangents that interested him. His interests led him to invent a compass, improve the telescope, discover the moons of Jupiter, study poetry, develop a compound microscope, design an early thermometer, study how things could float in water, develop a prototype for pendulum clocks and much more.

6) At the same time, Galileo had an uphill battle to use mathematics – his true love – in the world of science.

“I hear my adversaries shouting in my ears that … geometers [mathematicians] should stick to their fantasies and not get entangled in philosophical matters [physical sciences] … as if … anyone who knows geometry cannot know physics, and cannot reason about and deal with physical matters physically!” – Galileo

In Galileo’s time, science was driven by Aristotle’s observations hundreds of years before. To put it even more bluntly: science was driven by observations, period. The idea of using mathematics to support – or even derive – hypotheses was extremely iffy. Aristotelian science pretty much said that Nature was too chaotic to follow mathematical rules. One of the reasons that Galileo was able to gain some credence – and notoriety – advancing Copernicus’ theory of a Sun-centered universe was that Copernicus had only used mathematics. Galileo waited for years after learning Copernicus’s theory that the Earth moved around the Sun so that he could use observations, not just math. He was able to show how what you saw through his telescope paired with his mathematical logic to support his conclusions. This, along with the next item, were partial contributors to Galileo’s run-in with the Church. He also just had bad timing: Copernicus didn’t publish his theories until he was literally on his deathbed, and the Church passed edicts shortly thereafter that essentially outlawed any science that contradicted the Church’s interpretation of the Bible.

7) Galileo believed that education was for laypeople as well as high society.

This was another reason that he had the religious and scientific communities up in arms: he wrote some of his books in Italian instead of Latin – so that everyone could read it, not just scholars. He argued that it was unfair that only those who could afford to attend university had access to knowledge, arguing that laypeople had both, “Eyes with which to see her [Nature’s] works … also … brains capable of penetrating and understanding them.” As one of the Church scholars wrote, “He writes in Italian … to entice to that view common people in whom errors very easily take root.”

Further, Galileo published some of his arguments in the form of a play, poking fun at the opposition by demonstrating (through his characters) that even uneducated peasants could see that his opponents’ arguments were ridiculous.

8) Galileo wasn’t just a mind walking around on top of a body.

Galileo lived in a time when, similar to today, intellectualism was considered its own work if you could afford it. But Galileo enjoyed using his hands as much as his mind. A story goes that Galileo had unexpected visitors one day while he was gardening. Asked why he didn’t hire someone to do the manual labor, he replied, “No, no; I should lose the pleasure. If I thought it as much fun to have things done as it is to do them, I’d be glad to.” He also made sure to use real life applications in his writing. For instance, he explained how a 45-degree angle was optimal for shooting long-distance cannon fire, or how building boats in larger sizes impacted their structural integrity. This drastically changed the tone of physics; instead of trying to explain why things happened, he instead explored how they happened. This changed the focus of physics from 50,000-foot philosophy to on-the-ground, applied research that allowed the natural laws of the world to reveal themselves through their impacts.

He was also very much a family man; he and his daughter exchanged frequent letters and Galileo took on many of the finances for his brother, sisters, and children.

9) Galileo played by the rules. He really did (up until he was condemned by the Church). When the Church said that Copernicus’s theories were unmentionable, he desisted from mentioning them again in his writings until a new Pope was voted in who was more open to it. He carefully floated his ideas past this Pope before proceeding with his writing. When the Church said that he could publish about Copernicus’s theories so long as it was made clear that they were only hypotheses and not facts, he took care to do exactly that. His writing was proofread by the Church itself and approved.

So when Galileo ran into trouble – upon the publication of his Dialogue, which depicted three friends exploring the Ariostotelian and Copernican systems of the universe – it wasn’t because he’d gone behind Rome’s back or published anything without permission. It was simply that the Pope was having a bad month, had been accused of being too lax in enforcing the Catholic faith, and certain advisers counseled him that Galileo’s book was a personal insult.

Now …. did Galileo’s book basically argue that the Copernican approach was correct? Yes. But still – he had gone through all the correct channels to have his book approved and published. It would be inaccurate to say that the Church changed its mind – rather, those who were against Galileo gained the upper hand shortly after the publication of his Dialogue, which was most unfortunate timing.

There is an irony here: as soon as word spread from Rome that Galileo’s Dialogue had been banned, a fierce Black Market trade of the book sprung up. The book became more valuable, and gained both more readers and more “converts” to the Copernican system, inside of and outside of Italy.

The Church didn’t retract its ban on books teaching the Copernican theory until 1757, but the Dialogue remained banned until 1822.

10) Galileo inspired Newton’s laws of motion. Galileo was heartbroken after the Church pronounced him guilty of heresy, but his friends slowly drew him back into his projects. He refocused his energy on a project that he had allowed to lapse for most of his career: studying the laws of motion. The last book Galileo published, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences, informed Newton’s later ideas on his laws of motion and universal gravitation. Interestingly, Galileo considered Two New Sciences to be his most important work. It nearly wasn’t published; after the Church condemned Galileo, it forbade the printing of any of his books. A Dutch publisher had to covertly visit Galileo to get his manuscript. Galileo later feigned surprise that his Two New Sciences had ever found its way to Holland, and claimed that he had not been informed of the printing until it was already underway.

On a related note, Einstein is quoted as having named Galileo the father of modern physics because of the way that he incorporated mathematics into his approach.

All in all – Galileo’s Daughter is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it. I’m intrigued to find a book on Vincenzio Viviani when I have the opportunity. Viviani was Galileo’s student and fiercely loyal to him; we have him to thank for much of what we know of Galileo’s life and works, and his family is responsible for the eventual placement of Galileo’s body in its final, honored resting place.

Mashup Experiment

This is just an idea I’ve had percolating so I decided to run with it – it’s a slightly heavy-handed mash-up of some of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair and Stabbing Westward’s “So Far Away”. I think it’s interesting to cross-compare mediums so similar and so different (and I figured, why not share it? Even if I’m not sharing my own personal writing, this was an interesting experiment for me). I’m not entirely sure it worked – “So Far Away” is a pretty different style, even if it’s about the same thing. I wonder if it would have worked better to incorporate more rock songs, and granted I used several Neruda poems. Thoughts?

The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
There were thirst and hunger, and you were the fruit.
There were grief and the ruins, and you were the miracle.

Each night I felt the distance that grew between us
Open up as lonely as the space between the stars
You heard me from far away, and my voice could not reach you;
Silence defined us.
How terrible and brief was my desire of you!

And every time that you reached out, you felt me pull away.
How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

So I call out your name;
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one! Oh, abandoned one.

Stabbing Westward song:
Neruda poems:  Unfortunately, I can’t find the full collection online.


I’ve always made a habit of carrying a notebook around with me for thoughts I wanted to capture. But I recently bought a notebook dedicated to quotes and ideas I wanted to remember from the books I’m reading. It seemed a bit luxurious – all that paper and ink – but I retain things, and process them, by writing. So for me, writing is an intrinsic part of learning and enjoying what I read.

Not every book I read gets into the notebook, but so far it has things from:

  • Brave New World
  • The End of Your Life Book Club
  • Nudge
  • Finny
  • … and His Lovely Wife
  • Affliction
  • No Exit
  • Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
  • The Flies (amazing play)
  • Dirty Hands
  • The Rose and the Beast (an utterly depressing book)
  • The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman
  • Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

Here are some of my favorite of the favorites so far. This doesn’t reflect which books/plays were my favorite, though at times it does sum up why I liked a particular book:

“They’re about God hundreds of years ago. Not about God now.”

“But God doesn’t change.”

“Men do, though.”

“What difference does that make?”

“All the difference in the world.”

– Brave New World

“…Books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books … is how you take part in the human conversation.” – quoted in The End of Your Life Book Club

“… Having the people you love tell you they love you and mean it … it never goes out of style. Since we’re made in God’s image, this must be from Him, so even God must need an ‘atta-boy,’ an out-loud, in-your-head, ‘Thank you, great job on that sunset, and the platypus was a brilliant fun idea.’ Maybe that’s why we’re supposed to pray the way we do, because without it God would be lonely.” – Affliction

“One always dies too soon – or too late. And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, reading for the summing up. You are – your life, and nothing else.” – No Exit

“The junk piles became so bad that at one point there were billboard ads urging people to DUMP BOYFRIENDS, NOT APPLIANCES. It was a strange campaign – stranger when half the lights on the billboard went out, leaving only the illuminated command DUMP BOYFRIENDS.” – Farm City

“I suddenly saw my neighborhood for what it was: an artifact, an abused landscape. But it could morph again.” – Farm City

“They knew that the passing is a reflection of the lasting, that tables in our humble homes may become sacred altars, that a single deed of an individual man may decide the fate of all mankind.” – “No Time for Neutrality” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

“… she felt his strong heart beating like the sound of all the stories she could ever hope to tell.” – “Glass” in The Rose and the Beast

“And I will not make a poem nor the least part of a poem but
has reference to the soul,
Because having look’d at the objects of the universe, I find
there is no one nor any particle of one but has reference
to the soul. – “Starting from Paumanok” by Walt Whitman

Dialectic: Sartre and Heschel

I recently picked up a book of four of Sartre’s plays. I don’t remember now why I requested it from the library – it’s not on my reading list – except that one of my favorite quotes comes from Sartre: “Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he has not created himself – and is nevertheless free. Because having once been hurled into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

In any case, I read a translation of Sartre’s 1943 play The Flies (Les Mouches) this week, and I finished it shortly before going to my shiur, where we read Heschel’s 1936 The Meaning of Repentance.

It really was perfect timing, because Heschel and Sartre are discussing the exact same themes – but their views are directly opposed to one another.

Sartre adapts the Greek myth of Electra to describe a town where the king – and the Gods – use superstition, religion, and repentance to keep the people blind to their own power. The king – and the Gods – become so wrapped up in maintaining fear in the people’s minds and hearts that they themselves are victims of the system they have set up to remain in power, while the people remain too cowed to ever claim the “burden of freedom.” And – here is the key – the Gods cannot harm a man who knows he is free. He the king cannot control.

Orestes: …You are the king of gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves and the sea. But you are not the king of man.

Zeus: Impudent spawn! So I am not your king? Who, then, made you?

Orestes: You. But you blundered; you should not have made me free … No sooner had you created me than I ceased to be yours.

Heschel also writes about the relationship between sovereign (God) and man – about the necessity of the relationship to both parties:

Godliness … existed prior to the creation of the world and will survive the world in eternity. Sovereignty can exist only in a relationship … God desired kingship and from that will creation emerged. But now the kingly dignity of God depends on us …. We have to choose God as king.

Heschel goes on to the role of repentance in this relationship:

The deepest human longing is to be a thought in God’s mind, to be the object of his attention. He may punish and discipline me, only let Him not forget me, not abandon me. This single desire … will be fulfilled on the Days of Awe. The “Holy King” is “King of Judgment” …. Before the judgment and memory of God we stand. How can we prove ourselves? How can we persist? How can we be steadfast?

Through repentance.

But Heschel then highlights what I think may be the core difference between Sartre’s argument and Heshel’s:

… through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation.

In Sartre’s play, the Gods do exist – the philosopher who denies them completely is just as foolish as anyone else. And humanity is indeed desperate to be remembered and recognized by the Gods, to have significance and meaning in their lives, if only  for their imagined crimes and unending guilt. But the Gods in Sartre’s play aren’t secure in their power, and they aren’t forgiving. The Gods feed off of humanity’s agonizing repentance, until the day that humanity will recognize that they can only live by assuming the burden of their responsibility – responsibility for their crimes and responsibility to move forward with their lives.

At the end of the day, though, I think Sartre and Heschel agreed on the core issue, which is that humanity needed – and still needs – to take responsibility and action for issues of injustice. Sartre wrote several plays exploring the issues of racism and social inequality; Heschel was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and actively supported the Civil Rights movement. They both reacted to WWII with faith in the power of humanity to overcome evil – they simply disagreed on whether God played a role in that fight.

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – Heschel

All it takes is one person … and another … and another … and another … to start a movement. – Heschel

I do not believe in God …. but in the concentration camp, I learned to believe in men. – Sartre

Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he has not created himself – and is nevertheless free. Because having once been hurled into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. – Sartre

Book List: Inspiration

I’ve been doing very well at using the library instead of buying books lately. But there are certain books that are absolutely worth buying so you can reread them periodically. I wanted to share some of the books that have really inspired me lately, and that I try to come back to regularly. This is by no means a complete list, because of course there are different aspects of everyone’s life (ie, my inspiration for veganism would be a different list). Rather, these are books that inspire me to pursue balance and happiness.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life This book fascinated me because Donald Miller starts applying storywriting techniques to create change in his own life – to great success. Sometimes life changes require a little intervention, and this book has some great techniques for that. I very much want to read Love Does by his friend Bob Goff, but it’s not available at the library so I’ve ordered it online.

The Book of Lost Things John Connolly clearly ‘gets’ kids – and ‘gets’ adults who were once kids, as well. This is a story about loss and self-growth, one of those stories that you can’t quite summarize why, but it leaves you in a better place. I suppose in a way it reminds me of Finding Neverland, which I watched just recently – it deals with the very frightening realities of loss and becoming an adult, but it does so in a fantasy context that makes you feel safe enough to look at the issues.

The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun I was skeptical about Gretchen Rubin at the beginning. Her project struck me as silly, her explanations simplistic. But what I came to realize while reading this book is that Gretchen Rubin has quite a gift for absorbing a great deal of research, thinking deeply about it, and then offering it to you in a streamlined way.

365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life This book makes me cry every time I read it. Whether or not you take the semi-religious aspect of John Kralik’s story literally, this is a moving story about the power of gratitude to change our attitude and our attitude to change our life.

Eat, Pray, Love First – read the book, don’t just watch the movie. Elizabeth Gilbert is both an intellectual and intuitive woman, and since I’m the same way I found this a very useful exploration of pleasure, devotion and finding balance. Each time I read this book, I take something a little different out of it – there are a lot of lessons about finding yourself, loving yourself, exploring your personal relationship to the world and God, forging your own path in life and more.

The Literal List

I mentioned a few months back that I was planning to work my way through the reading list for the comprehensive exam administered to Masters of Arts in English students (my list comes from “Pittsburg State University” – which I thought was quite the spelling error until I discovered there IS a Pittsburg, Kansas).

I’m still doing a lot of off-list reading and going at it at completely my own pace. So here are a few stats:

Books completed on the list (not including books I’d already read before starting this project): 11

Books completed on the list (including books I’d read before): 31

(Actual books on the list: unknown. It depends on which choices you make within each category, so I’ll have to count the final number when I’ve finished! But it should be somewhere around 130.)

Favorite “new book” on the list: Beowulf

Favorite “read-it-before” book on the list: Jane Eyre

Most recently completed: Aurora Leigh (Comment: the author wants to prove that epic poetry is still a relevant writing form for today. While I understand why she wants to express herself in poetry – it allows for more emotion than prose – she goes on too many tangents for it to really work well in this book.)


I’m currently reading Morte D’Arthur …. as I understand it, it’s essentially the oldest English translation text of the legends of Arthur. It took me a while to get into it, mostly because I’ve been grappling with the following:

  1. There’s absolutely no “downtime” for the first several chapters – it’s boom, boom, boom. As in – Arthur gets the sword. The other kings wage war on him. He wages war on a different king to gain allies. He wages war on the kings who are against him. Oh, look, a new knight joins the Round Table who happened to kill that knight’s father. Guess what happens next? There isn’t even enough downtime for detailed descriptions in a lot of the stories. It’s more suited to a TV mini-series than to a book you read in one sitting. I imagine a storyteller would flesh out the stories a bit more …. or at least break them into installments.
  2. I don’t quite understand why God punishes Arthur for begetting a child with his sister (who he doesn’t know he’s related to), but has absolutely no problem with Arthur sleeping with plenty of married women before that. I’m missing something big in Christian theology here.
  3. Likewise, I’m taken aback by how casually Christianity and sorcery go hand-in-hand in this book. No one seems to have issues with Merlin making religious proclamations. I guess it’s an era thing.

I think #s 1 and 2 really boil down to … this is a guy’s book, not the romance I was expecting. I mean, if I had a dollar for every story that involves a man wanting to have sex with a woman – even Merlin gets obsessed with a damsel and won’t leave her alone until she tricks him under an enchanted rock (by the way, women definitely seem to be smarter than men in this book so far). The mindset of the characters revolves around honor, and honor often seems to mean “wage war, not peace.” The author also feels no obligation to historical authenticity – as evidenced by Arthur’s supposed coronation as ruler of the Roman Empire (apparently some versions actually claim some event called him home before the coronation to get around the little issue of the historical record, but my version has no such scruples).

Even though there have been books I had to force myself through, I’m really enjoying this project. I’m trying to read at least one book from the list each month, and I often read more. I’m not going in any particular order – periodically I just go crazy on the library’s website requesting whichever books catch my eye.

I’ll try to post another update on my progress with the list when I’m further down the line!