Archive for May, 2008

Galileo

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Apparently there’s a tradition here at the University of Richmond: when a faculty member gets tenured, he or she chooses a book for the library and writes a description of the importance of the book. The library inserts that description into the catalog, or into the book, or something like that.

Since I just got tenure, I had to choose a book to write about. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to go with Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems. Here’s the description I’m sending off to the library.

By the way, I really mean it when I say in here that the book is extremely readable. I can’t think of any other book that’s (a) anywhere near as important as this one and (b) actually fun to read. If you haven’t read it, check it out! (Although if you’re at UR, you’ll have to wait a week or so to get it out of the library, because I’ve got it at the moment.)

Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

The central idea of astrophysics is that the same laws of nature we discover in labs on Earth can be used throughout the Universe: there are not separate laws for heavenly bodies. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this insight to the emergence of modern science. Galileo did not invent this idea – like most really big ideas, this one cannot be attributed to any one person. But he deserves a large share of the credit for developing the idea and for persuasively and cogently championing it. Galileo is an all-too-rare figure among the giants of science: he wrote with clarity and even wit for an audience of non-specialists. He wrote in the common language, not in Latin, in a style that makes his work still readable and even enjoyable today.

Galileo has a lot in common with Einstein, so it is fitting that Einstein wrote the foreword to this English translation. In particular, Galileo's description of experiments performed below decks on a moving ship is the direct ancestor of Einstein's discovery of relativity, both in the scientific content of the ideas and in the ingenious use of thought experiments.