Tuesday, 16 September 2014


When espousing the joys of science to the young, it is wise not to reveal details about actual scientists.

I once made that mistake.

Just before I left New Zealand to start my PhD, I did some outreach work, and lectured high-school students on the dramatic story of Galileo, "the father of modern science".

What could be more inspiring? He realised that mathematics was essential to make scientific theories rigorous, and experiments essential to develop, test, disprove, and improve the theories.

Through the sheer power of his intellect and his desire to understand, he discovered that Aristotle, that great toad croaking at the intellectual heart of all medieval wisdom, was wrong: moving objects do not tend naturally to rest; and if you chuck lead balls of different sizes out of Italian architecture, they all fall at the same rate.

He postulated the Principle of Relativity, that subtle and seemingly innocuous concept that Einstein later wielded to go one better on Galileo's purported successor, Newton.

He was the first to realise that the telescope was more than a Peeping Tom's second tool. He used it to argue that the Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around, as believed by Aristotle, Ptolemy, most other scholars throughout history, and also that jolly institution, the Catholic Church. For his troubles the Church threw this brave visionary into a dark dank dungeon, where he rotted away his last days scribbling on the wall, "And still it moves".

What a perfect story! The kids would love it!

Even in those ignorant times before the invention of Wikipedia, it took me only an hour of background reading to discover that the myth was a tad skewed.

Yes, Galileo was clever and talented, but it was a talent in the service of a boundless ambition and a monstrous ego, and peppered with a true jerk's delight in pissing off as many people as possible.

His motivation was not purely to make sense of the universe. He did not sit in his study and muse, "God has blessed me with a keen intellect. It is my solemn duty to harness it in the cause of wisdom and truth!"

No. He sat in his study and thought, "I need a better job. I need a promotion. I need to be rich and famous. I need all of my enemies to suffer daily at the sight of my unbelievably gratuitous success and brilliance." And then he thought some more: "The only way to do that is to shove that fatuous dumb-ass Aristotle off his pedestal, and get myself up there instead."

So he set about trying to prove Aristotle wrong about something. Anything. "No-one has done it yet," he thought, "but that's because they weren't as smart as me."

What is the difference between a tour-de-force performance of human intellect, invention, and single-minded devotion to discovery, and an egotistical, delusional, self-absorbed descent into madness? The difference is whether you succeed. Galileo succeeded. He proved Aristotle wrong, and he was indeed a hero. The number of people he could now taunt with his brilliance was incredible.

The church persecution turned out to be an exaggeration, too. He was not thrown into any dungeon. He was put under house arrest. The house in question was his Tuscan villa. Where he spent the rest of his life getting to feel like a tragic victim of injustice (the ideal state of the egoist), and write at his leisure his greatest book. That's right, fellow academics: no classes to teach, no students to supervise, no grants to write, no committees to sit on. As career trajectories go, you can do worse than a string of revolutionary results followed by a convenient charge of heresy.

The issue behind the charge of heresy was Galileo's support of heliocentrism (the Earth moves around the sun), rather than the Church-supported model of geocentrism (the Earth is fixed at the centre of the universe). But Galileo's problem was not that he was a heliocentric. He was an egocentric.

He was friends with the Pope, and was sure that his brilliance and charm could convince God's carefully chosen representative to pass the word up to his Boss that Galileo was right and Aristotle and Ptolemy and all those other old codgers were wrong. He might have managed it, too, but he was also determined to pave the road to the Pope with a thick coating of apoplectic Cardinals. He knew that they were mere idiots and sycophants down to the last man, and there is nothing more fun than making idiots angry. He just forgot that angry idiots can be dangerous.

"Forgot" is something of an understatement. He was so convinced of his invincible genius that when he was asked to write a book summarising the arguments for and against the heliocentric view, he took the Pope's own arguments against it, and put them in the mouth of a character not-so-subtly named "Simplicio", and then mocked the hell out of him. The Cardinals lined up to recite their favourite passages to their master. When Galileo later protested that he did not realise that this would upset anyone, you can almost imagine that he was so arrogant that he really believed it.

So: what I discovered was that the story of Galileo was not as simple, or as pure, as I once thought. What I should also have discovered, but has only just dawned on me, was that he was the model not just for modern science, but for modern hotshot scientists as well. A great talent tethered to boundless ambition? A monstrous ego? A delight in pissing off as many people as possible? Sounds like half of the scientists I know. And next time you put your nose in the air and mock the paper chasers who leap onto the latest hot topic in a desperate search for a headline result -- just remember, they are following in some illustrious footsteps.

Was Galileo really that bad? I have no idea. I have not pored over Galileo's collected correspondence, or combed through the Vatican archives, or closely questioned leading historians after spending two years in the painstaking company of a 478-work bibliography of Galileo's life, science and times. All I did was skim-read a hastily chosen biography, and replace in my mind the heroic genius myth with the arrogant genius myth. The first myth was a useful inspiration to pursue science, and the second was even more useful in understanding and surviving the scientific world I have scrabbled into.

And finally: just because the heroes of science are often jerks, that does not make them any less brilliant. They deserve our respect, even our awe, but they do not deserve to be worshiped as saints.

As for my little Galileo lecture -- it reverted to most of the hero myth. I climbed on a ladder behind a cardboard cut-out of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and dropped a hammer and a feather. They did not do what Galileo predicted, but then I showed a video of the same experiment being performed by astronauts on the moon. Yes, the smug bastard was right after all. I did not mention the run-in with the Cardinals and the Pope.


  1. Bravo! Thanks for the nice look into history! i can't imagine trying to succeed only to piss people off, but I guess everyone needs a hobby. Have you heard the one about the Nobel physics laureate who peed on other people's lab equipment? I've been told his name must never be mentioned in the same scope as his escapades for fear of being destroyed in our chosen field.... so I won't. Apparently, however, fame does have it's perks if you find yourself unable to make it to the loo in time.

    1. I'd heard of the story, but not the details. Disputes aren't usually so smelly for theorists.

  2. My first degree - philosophy at LSE - was, naturally enough for a department founded by Karl Popper, full of epistemology and the philosophy of science, and Galileo was a hot topic. I really like this post - demonstrating that truth and beauty do not go together at all. And a great video - I'd never seen that, and it is just splendid!

    1. Sounds like a great time!
      One of the wonderful things about the philosophy of science is that it drives so many scientists batty. Not the only great thing, though.

  3. All very interesting Mark. Only here we are four hundred years later, and I'll wager that you can't explain why that feather falls down. And when you can, it gets interesting for black holes. I wish you'd blog about black holes. M60-UCD1 is interesting.

    1. All right, I'll bite. The feather falls down due to the gravitational attraction between the feather and the moon.


[Note: comments do not seem to work from Facebook.]