An astrophysicist examines the life of the great astronomer—who 400 years ago was imprisoned and forced to recant his discovery that “the earth moves and is not the center of the world"—and links his trials to contemporary debates surrounding the faith vs. science question.
Few historical episodes are more fraught with subtleties, ironies and ambiguities. To tell it properly requires an unusual breadth of knowledge and the gifts of a great storyteller. Fortunately, Mario Livio is fully equipped for the task. In Galileo: And the Science Deniers, his mastery not only of the science (which is to be expected of a highly accomplished astrophysicist), but of the cultural and historical context, is impressive. Even more impressive perhaps, given that he is not Catholic, is his relatively sophisticated grasp of some of the theological arguments and issues ... Livio’s occasional straying into the didactic, not to say homiletic, will be distracting or irritating for some readers. But they do not diminish the value of the rest of his book, which tells the story of Galileo in a perceptive, illuminating and balanced way.
The non-chronological zigzagging of the book can be hard to follow, but allows Livio to focus on themes, such as Galileo’s polymathy ... Livio is at his best when he discusses how Galileo’s scientific understanding compares with that of researchers today ... It’s a chillingly relevant theme, yet the parallels he draws between Galileo’s trial and contemporary science wars feel thin, and there’s a frustrating lack of examples to demonstrate the continuity of denialism through the centuries. Nonetheless, Livio has added to the canon an accessible and scientific narrative, in which a profound love for Galileo shines through.
Throughout his engaging discussion of Galileo and the forces arrayed against him, Livio highlights the similarities to current political and religious arguments against such science-based positions as the veracity of evolution and human-induced climate change. One striking element of contrast that the author touches on somewhat obliquely is perhaps the most crucial: The church’s stranglehold on scientific inquiry had a chilling effect on free thought and the exchange of ideas, and pointedly hurt certain individuals—such as Bruno—but nothing the church believed, mandated, or proclaimed had any power to change the stasis of the sun or motion of the Earth.