Commentary, History and Philosophy of Science

Galileo, astronomer

GalileoOn this date in 1610, Galileo Galilei first observed the four moons of Jupiter, which are now known as the Galilean moons. To kick off the International Year of Astronomy—a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo—we highlight two titles on Galileo by Mario Biagioli, notable for their depiction of the great scientist as much more than a man focused on the stars.
A fascinating cultural and social history of science highlighting the workings of power, patronage, and credibility in the development of science, Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism argues that Galileo’s courtly role was integral to his science—the questions he chose to examine, his methods, even his conclusions. In the court of the Medicis and the Vatican, Galileo fashioned both his career and his science to the demands of patronage and its complex systems of wealth, power, and prestige. As Steven Shapin noted in the American Historical Review, “One achievement of this important book is that historians will no longer be able to sustain the traditional view of ‘science speaking truth to power.'”
Focusing on the aspects of Galileo’s scientific life that extend beyond the framework of court culture and patronage, Biagioli offers in Galileo’s Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy a revisionist account of the different systems of exchanges, communication, and credibility at work in various phases of Galileo’s career. In six short years, Galileo Galilei went from being a somewhat obscure mathematics professor running a student boarding house in Padua to a star in the court of Florence to the recipient of dangerous attention from the Inquisition for his support of Copernicanism. Galileo’s tactics during this time shifted as rapidly as his circumstances, argues Biagioli, and the pace of these changes forced him to respond swiftly to the opportunities and risks posed by unforeseen inventions, further discoveries, and the interventions of his opponents. (Read an excerpt.)
And if you want to read more from the man himself, check out Sidereus Nuncius, or The Sidereal Messenger, the first scientific treatise based on observations made through a telescope (including those moons he spotted 399 years ago!).
Happy International Year of Astronomy!