Adam Gopnik Galileo as 17th Century Malcolm McClaren-Cum-Johnny Rotten & the Myth John Dee Wasn’t a Scientist

I'm over at the BBC News Magazine reading Adam Gopnik unfavourably comparing Galileo with John Dee in his A Point of View: Science, Magic, and Madness.

[Let me point out here at the time of writing I suspect Adam's made a typo when he states Galileo tested Aristotle’s theory a feather'll always fall at the same rate as a brick because Aristotle's idea was actually denser heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones but perhaps Adam’s done this deliberately as a means of covertly proving his stated conviction slightly smarter than average types like me're less well informed than we imagine ourselves to be being neither sufficiently intelligent or sufficiently educated enough to realise the reason our opinions don't correspond to the consensus’s because we’re actually something close to delusive.

[Which’s quite possibly true but I'll put down my half-baked take on Galileo and Dee anyway just in case I get lucky and accidentally stumble on something capable of slightly flummoxing superior more highly educated intelligences than my own].

Where I disagree with Adam is in his styling of Galileo as a true scientist who went round physically testing things unlike Dee "who read everything there was to read in his time and knew everything there was to know in the esoterica of his time - but didn't know what was worth knowing" and who not once in his life asked “the essential question - is this idea bull or is it for real?”

Let me take Galileo first.

In July 1609 he hears about something we'd call the telescope and as Galileo himself tells it in the sort of ‘bigging it up’ language of the born entrepreneur he applied to everything he ever touched within six months he'd not only worked out the technical principles by which such a device must operate but he's also learned how to grind out supposedly peerless innovative hi-tech lenses of unprecedented technical quality but's also built and knocked out to the commercial public shedloads of the ‘new’ wonder of the age the astronomy quality telescope [as well as a whole host of other technological wonders of his design] and while achieving all this also apparently taught himself how to overcome the fact the damned telescope’s so badly designed it can only be poorly focused to produce very narrow very blurred very eye-tiring imprecisely defined images.

And yet by January he’s so convinced of his newfound expertise as an astronomer not to mention the importance of his observations he's already started writing The Starry Messenger and finished proofing and printing it and put it on sale by March.

And this I suggest’s one of the most striking things about Galileo the supposed first modern scientist etc etc how little attention’s actually paid to his lack of scientific thoroughness and his somehow very modern tendency to rush to conclusions to rush into the limelight to rush to publish in case someone else publishes first the rush to assert the importance of him and his achievements the rush to assert he’s right and everyone else’s wrong and the snidey almost Thomas Edison covert like rush to use media of the day to undermine or even scurrilously discredit the work of any potential rivals.

Take Galileo’s explanation for the tidal system and his assertion that explanation was the definitive proof for Heliocentrism the only problem being the theory required one tide a day when there were actually two and yet Galileo the supposed prime exemplar of modern observation based Science goes instead with rejigging the theory rather than admit observations prove he’s wrong.

On the other hand the infinitely more experienced astronomer Kepler despite being seven years younger than Galileo and a public defender of Copernicus’ Heliocentrism with his own Mysterium Cosmographicum for at least ten years's supposedly a weirdo so obsessed with mystical Biblical crankery he's unfit to wipe Galileo’s arse as a scientist yet kepler was the one who went with what actual observation showed namely a clear but inexplicable relationship between the position of the moon and the strength height and direction of the tides.

And this’s where I even more sharply diverge from Adam Gopnik’s take on things because while I don’t see Galileo as quite the definitive father of modern science Adam and many others imagine him to be it’s very clear to me his extreme tendencies to truculence and self-assertion ultimately proved a devastatingly effective bomb up the arse of the Aristotelians whose determination to maintain their master’s stranglehold on science was I suggest what was almost certainly behind much of the treatment doled out to Galileo by the Church.

But surely even Adam can see it was precisely Galileo’s obsession with the idea if not the actual practise of so-called modern observational science which prevented him from conceiving what the two mystical ponderers of intangible forces Kepler and Newton could namely the observational facts of a clear if inexplicable reciprocity between the tidal mechanism and the position of the moon implied the operation of some unseen force still even to this day not fully explained.

In which case could he also be wrong John Dee was a man so learned he had compacted shit for brains.

I recently found myself trapped on a packed bus with a young American chap who was so utterly inept in his attempts to convert me to his religion in the end I felt had to school him away from all the mechanical spiel he’d been trained to use on complete strangers like me and get him to try to establish a more sincere connection via his own actual experience of his own religion. How did he come to find Jesus I asked was he just brought up to believe in him? “Oh no” he insisted “I opened my heart to him and invited him to enter if he was really there and he came. You could do the same…”

“Oh I could” I said “But I might get your version of Him and I tend towards intellectual claustrophobia at the thought the Earth might only be a few thousand years old.”

“But it is.”

“Oh I can well conceive the possibility it may be but personal experience also suggests to me the possibility the entire universe ceases to exist moment by moment only for Something to immediately keep willing it back into existence again but even experiencing that doesn't make me automatically believe that's the true explanation either.”

My point being despite what many people claim even religion has verifying procedures in it and the main reason why most of us don't want to scientifically test them's because they might bleedin' work!

My other point is this Adam Gopnik thinks it’s somehow important to call bullshit on ideas you don’t like but then Galileo agreed with him and called bullshit on any ideas he didn’t like either.

For instance he scurrilously denounced Father Grassi the Jesuit Aristotelian’s observation comets were some sort of fiery body voyaging from far beyond the moon on a curved trajectory of some sort apparently akin to an orbit because Galileo the believer in stone cold hard scientific facts knew for a stone cold hard scientific mathematical fact comets were only tricks of the light but as to what that might tell us about how good his telescopes were I'll leave you to decide.

Similarly when the far more experienced Kepler trained by the master observational astronomer of the age Tycho Brahe observed the orbits of the planets were ellipses Galileo called bullshit on that too because he knew for a stone cold hard scientific fact maths compelled the planets to orbit in perfect circles.

John Dee on the other hand I suggest was acting more like a true scientist following scientific method when he actually tested whether it was possible to turn lead into gold or communicate with abstract nonphysical entities existing on other planes by following the various protocols and methods outlined by other researchers.

That he believed he succeeded of course means Adam gets to call bullshit on Dee because he doesn’t like the idea such a thing's even remotely possible but then Kepler’s take on the tidal system was supposedly occult mumbojumbo too.

Upto a few decades ago science used Evolution to prove as a stone cold hard scientific fact homosexuality was complete mental fuckery so electrically fried peoples’ brains or lopped bits off to cure 'em.

Upto a decade ago people who reported hearing things like music and seeing things like colours or numbers parading through the air had bullshit called on them too because of course such things’re completely impossible and some of them were so disturbed by this stone cold hard scientific fact they either got locked up for life or they killed themselves.

Nowadays though it's called synaesthesia.

Adam maybe Galileo was right all along and there are no strange intangible inexplicable forces emanating from the moon and it’s us moderns who’ve merely become collectively moonstruck.

Then again maybe the angelic intelligences Dee thought he was interacting with were something else far more mysterious or something along the lines of a more elaborate synaesthesia or the perceptually testing Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.

So why can’t the Dees and Keplers and Newtons of the world be allowed to investigate their thing and the Galileos their thing without you or Galileo or anyone having to call bullshit on anyone?

If this potted history teaches us anything it’s surely both points of view have their virtues and both can be highly productive especially when they're allowed to communicate or even interact?

The only other thing I’d like to suggest Adam's mystic nutjobs like my mates Dee Kepler and Newton might well’ve had an easier time dealing with quantum physics etc than your mate Galileo.

Just a thought.