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A Revolution With No Rewind: Galileo’s Daughter and How the Patron Saint of Astronomy Reconciled Science and Spirituality

“Although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments, it is still caught in his struggle.”

A Revolution With No Rewind: Galileo’s Daughter and How the Patron Saint of Astronomy Reconciled Science and Spirituality

Like Blake and Beethoven, Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564–January 8, 1642) lived a life animated by the tragic genius of outsiderdom. It was only by standing apart from his society that he was able to cast dogma and convention aside, oppose the core beliefs of his era, and peer into the very fabric of eternity from his lonesome-making lookout. If anyone in his world made him feel less alone and misunderstood, it was Virginia — the eldest of his three children, with whom he identified and connected most closely. In a letter to a colleague, he once extolled her as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to [him].” He saw in her a counterpart to his own intellect, sensibility, and restless seeker spirit. But one enormous incongruity marked their relationship: On her thirteenth birthday, Virginia entered a convent and remained there for the rest of her short life, devout yet devoted to her father, in constant correspondence with him as he set about upending the most fundamental tenets of religion with his revolutionary scientific discoveries.

In her 1999 masterwork Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love (public library) — a book so fantastic that it has been blatantly plagiarized — science writer extraordinaire Dava Sobel mines the 124 surviving letters between father and daughter for insight into the multitudes that Galileo contained and the complex relationship between science and spirituality that permeated his life, his work, and his love for Virginia.

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The backdrop Sobel paints is a mosaic of contrasts:

Galileo’s daughter, born of his long illicit liaison with the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice, entered the world in the summer heat of a new century, on August 13, 1600 — the same year the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for insisting, among his many heresies and blasphemies, that the Earth traveled around the Sun, instead of remaining motionless at the center of the universe. In a world that did not yet know its place, Galileo would engage this same cosmic conflict with the Church, treading a dangerous path between the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic and the heavens he revealed through his telescope.

[…]

Virginia adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars. Even after she professed a life of prayer and penance, she remained devoted to Galileo as though to a patron saint.

[…]

No detectable strife ever disturbed the affectionate relationship between Galileo and his daughter. Theirs is not a tale of abuse or rejection or intentional stifling of abilities. Rather, it is a love story, a tragedy, and a mystery.

The most palpable mystery, of course, is that of how Galileo was able to reconcile his scientific devotion to critical thinking with his daughter’s unquestioning faith, and how Virginia was able to reconcile her religious devotion with her father’s continual flirtation with heresy. Centuries later, Pope John Paul II would point to Galileo as the chief culprit in what he called the “tragic mutual incomprehension” between science and religion, but Sobel argues that Galileo and Virginia themselves made sense of this perplexity through a categorically different orientation of mind and spirit — rather than seeing it as a paradox, much less a contradiction, they were able to make loving room for a simultaneity of devotions, both between and within themselves.

To the modern mind, so bedeviled by binaries, such a simultaneity of conflicting convictions seems almost incomprehensible — which is why the quantum notion of complementarity can be so challenging to wrap one’s head around. And yet this disposition was the key to Galileo’s relationship with his daughter and, as Sobel suggests, to the very quality of character from which his cataclysmic contribution to science sprang. She writes:

[Their] letters, which have never been published in translation, recast Galileo’s story. They recolor the personality and conflict of a mythic figure, whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. For although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments, it is still caught in his struggle, still burdened by an impression of Galileo as a renegade who scoffed at the Bible and drew fire from a Church blind to reason.

[…]

Yet the Galileo of Suor Maria Celeste’s letters recognized no such division during his lifetime. He remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul. “Whatever the course of our lives,” Galileo wrote, “we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine.”

This proclamation stands as an irrefutable testament to the fact that even the most visionary genius is a product of her or his time and cannot fully escape the era’s blinders. But, far more important, it also attests to the enrichment and expansion of vision that comes from recognizing that each interpretation of reality is rife with subjectivity and actor-observer bias, from allowing multiple perspectives, from folding multitudes of experience and understanding unto a single self. Although he entrusted Providence with elevating Earthly minds, Galileo elevated his gaze to the cosmos by the power of his own will and continued to investigate its mysteries, every new discovery chipping away at dogma but not at his sense of divinity, for it furnished the divinest of all revelations and the supreme human zeal — that which Einstein called the “passion for comprehension.”

Galileo at age 42. Portrait by Domenico Robusti.
Galileo at age 42. Portrait by Domenico Robusti.

Although Galileo himself did not invent the telescope — neither the tool nor the term — he refined and reimagined its use. In doing so, he sparked a revolution at first quiet, then cacophonous. Sobel chronicles how this monumental shift in perception precipitated a monumental shift in understanding:

In the summer of 1609, Galileo was distracted from his motion experiments by rumors of a new Dutch curiosity called a spyglass, or eyeglass, that could make faraway objects appear closer than they were. Though few Italians had seen one firsthand, spectacle makers in Paris were already selling them in quantity.

Galileo immediately grasped the military advantage of the new spyglass, although the instrument itself, fashioned from stock spectacle lenses, was little more than a toy in its first incarnation. Seeking to improve the spyglass by augmenting its power, Galileo calculated the ideal shape and placement of glass, ground and polished the crucial lenses himself, and traveled to nearby Venice to show the doge, along with the entire Venetian senate, what his contrivance could do. The response, he reported, was “the infinite amazement of all.” Even the oldest senators eagerly scaled the highest bell towers of the city, repeatedly, for the unique pleasure of discerning ships on the horizon — through the spyglass — a good two to three hours before they became visible to the keenest-sighted young lookouts.

In exchange for the gift of his telescope (as a colleague in Rome later renamed the instrument), the Venetian senate renewed Galileo’s contract at the University of Padua for life, and raised his salary to one thousand florins per year — more than five times his starting pay.

Galileo proceeded to improve his lenses, doubling the magnifying power of his telescopes, and was soon able to produce his now-iconic detailed drawings of the Moon’s phases — a radical refutation of Aristotle’s longstanding claim that the celestial bodies were perfectly still and perfectly smooth fixtures in the Heavens. Instead, Galileo revealed them to be imperfect pieces of rock in perpetual motion.

Galileo’s Moon drawings, included in 100 Diagrams That Changed the World

The more intently and irreverently he peered into the cosmos, the more he saw, and soon he made his most groundbreaking discovery of all — Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, which remained the only known Jovian moons, out of 67 known today, up until the dawn of modern popular astronomy. In an exhilarated letter from January of 1610, Galileo called them “four planets never seen from the beginning of the world right up to our day.” Once again, he fused faith with science:

I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.

Jupiter's Galilean moons, in ascending order of distance from Earth: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. (Composite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/DLR)
Contemporary astrophotography of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, in ascending order of distance from Earth: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. (Composite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/DLR)

By March, he had published his Starry Messenger — perhaps the single most paradigm-shifting text in the history of our civilization, which created an instant sensation, sold out within a week of rolling off the press, and sparked a revolution with no rewind. For the perfect illustration of just how radical a shift this was, Sobel cites the letter accompanying the copy of Starry Messenger which Sir Henry Wotton, the British ambassador to Venice, sent to King James I:

I send herewith unto His Majesty the strangest piece of news (as I may justly call it) that he hath ever yet received from any part of the world; which is the annexed book (come abroad this very day) of the Mathematical Professor at Padua, who by the help of an optical instrument (which both enlargeth and approximateth the object) invented first in Flanders, and bettered by himself, hath discovered four new planets rolling about the sphere of Jupiter, besides many other unknown fixed stars; likewise, the true cause of the Via Lactea [Milky Way], so long searched; and lastly, that the moon is not spherical, but endued with many prominences, and, which is of all the strangest, illuminated with the solar light by reflection from the body of the earth, as he seemeth to say. So as upon the whole subject he hath first overthrown all former astronomy — for we must have a new sphere to save the appearances — and next all astrology. For the virtue of these new planets must needs vary the judicial part, and why may there not yet be more? These things I have been bold thus to discourse unto your Lordship, whereof here all corners are full. And the author runneth a fortune to be either exceeding famous or exceeding ridiculous. By the next ship your Lordship shall receive from me one of the above instruments, as it is bettered by this man.

Galileo continued to better his instrument. Shortly after Virginia entered the convent and became Suor Maria Celeste, he began his slow-motion collision with the Catholic Church, at the climax of which he wrote his famous letter about science, religion, and human nature to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany. Sobel writes of the period after the Inquisition pressed its knife to the bone of Galileo’s science:

For seven cautious years he turned his efforts to less perilous pursuits, such as harnessing his Jovian satellites in the service of navigation, to help sailors discover their longitude at sea. He studied poetry and wrote literary criticism. Modifying his telescope, he developed a compound microscope. “I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” he reported, “among which the flea is quite horrible, the gnat and the moth very beautiful; and with great satisfaction I have seen how flies and other little animals can walk attached to mirrors, upside down.”

Galileo at his microscope from I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen
Galileo at his microscope from I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen

If Galileo was such a visionary seer, it was because his supreme tool was neither the microscope nor the telescope but curiosity itself — an indiscriminate curiosity that rendered him equally interested in the microscopic and the monumental. Perhaps peering into the cell and witnessing its miraculous marvels, invisible to the naked eye, was what granted him the confidence and faith that the cosmos might hide similar revelations, accessible to the curious, tireless, and well-equipped eye; what prompted him to quip defiantly: “Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”

But the most marvelous thing, the most humbling thing, is that even as this visionary seer peered into the fabric of reality, he only saw a fraction of what we know to exist today. As Galileo gazed through his primitive telescope from his vantage point at the dawn of observational astronomy, he couldn’t see — and likely couldn’t even imagine the existence of — celestial structures as basic as galaxies, to say nothing of cosmic marvels like pulsars and dark matter, which weren’t even theorized, much less detected, until centuries after Galileo became stardust. Today, we are warmed by the rays of a new dawn of gravitational astronomy and as we begin listening to the universe, we are well advised to expect being whispered or bellowed secrets as elemental yet unimaginable to us today as galaxies were to Galileo.

Complement the thoroughly terrific Galileo’s Daughter with the patron saint of astronomy on critical thinking, how books give us superhuman powers, the story of how he invented timekeeping and changed modern life, and this charming children’s book about his life and legacy, then revisit Alan Lightman on finding secular spirituality in science.

BP

Blake, Beethoven, and the Tragic Genius of Outsiderdom

“It is the mark of a genius like Blake … that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”

Blake, Beethoven, and the Tragic Genius of Outsiderdom

There is a peculiar kind of loneliness seeded by the sense of being on the outside of the culture and the society inside which one is supposed to live. But along with its quiet anguish, outsiderdom brings its own recompenses and rewards. Hannah Arendt considered it a power and a privilege for the intellectually awake person. Pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff saw it as necessary for the visionary scientist. James Baldwin believed that the role and responsibility of the artist was to wage a “lover’s war” on his or her culture, tirelessly pushing in from the outside to upend society’s complacent interior stability.

But perhaps the greatest, most abiding case for this state of outsiderdom as a centerpiece of genius — outsiderdom both self-chosen and imposed by the peculiar burdens of brilliance — comes from William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). So argues Alfred Kazin, one of the most insightful and elegant writers of the past century, in his beautiful opening essay for The Portable William Blake (public library) — the indispensable 1977 volume that gave us Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and the creative spirit.

In his 1951 memoir, Kazin himself had written beautifully about the loneliness of outsiderdom — an experience so acute and so defining of his own life that it became the lens through which he examined Blake’s genius and its implications for our broader understanding of art, innovation, and the creative spirit.

William Blake (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven.
William Blake (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Kazin writes:

In 1827 there died, undoubtedly unknown to each other, two plebeian Europeans of supreme originality: Ludwig van Beethoven and William Blake.

[…]

Blake had instinctive musical gifts; in his youth and old age he spontaneously, when in company, sang melodies to his own lyrics. Musicians who heard them set them down; I wish I knew where. Even on his deathbed, where he worked to the last, he composed songs. But he had no formal musical knowledge and apparently no interest in musical thought. Self-educated in every field except engraving, to which he had been apprenticed at fourteen, his only interest in most ideas outside his own was to refute them. He always lived and worked very much alone, with a wife whom he trained to be the mirror of his mind. The world let him alone. He was entirely preoccupied with his designs, his poems, and the burden — which he felt more than any writer whom I know — of the finiteness of man before the whole creation.

Beethoven’s isolation, Kazin argues, was of a different nature — less conscious and less voluntary — and its consequences for the life of his creative spirit were therefore different as well. He writes of the great composer:

He was separated from society by his deafness, his pride, his awkward relations with women, relatives, patrons, inadequate musicians. He was isolated, as all original minds are, by the need to develop absolutely in his own way. The isolation was made tragic, against his will, by his deafness and social pride. At the same time he was one of the famous virtuosos of Europe, the heir of Mozart and the pupil of Haydn, and the occasional grumpy favorite of the musical princes of Vienna. His isolation was an involuntary personal tragedy, as it was by necessity a social fact. He did not resign himself to it, and only with the greatest courage learned to submit to it. If he was solitary, it was in a great tradition. As he was influenced by his predecessors, so he became the fountainhead of the principal musical thought that came after him.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Unlike Beethoven, Blake severed contact with his culture and his past completely and deliberately — something at the heart of the timelessly electrifying letter in which he defended himself against a patron who had accused him of being too unconcerned with the real world and too animated by the life of the imagination. His outsiderdom was fully self-elected — Blake flung the gates of his culture wide open with his own self-taught hands and marched boldly through them, his back forever turned to the citadel of convention.

Kazin, who two decades earlier had written beautifully about how our vantage point shapes our reality, writes:

Blake’s isolation was — I sometimes think it still is — absolute. It was the isolation of a mind that sought to make the best of heaven and earth, in the image of neither. It was isolation of a totally different kind of human vision; of an unappeasable longing for the absolute integration of man, in his total nature, with the universe. It was the isolation of a temperament run on fixed ideas; and incidentally, of a craftsman who could not earn a living.

Kazin considers Blake’s outsiderdom as an orientation of spirit both absolutely singular to the great artist and abounding with parallels across a great many facets of creative culture, familiar to those who have voyaged along the artist’s path:

There are analogies to Blake’s position in a world which has so many displaced persons as our own; but they are inadequate. Blake’s isolation may be likened to that of the revolutionary who sits in his grubby room writing manifestoes against a society that pays him no attention, with footnotes against other revolutionaries who think him mad. It was that of the author who prints his own books. It was that of the sweetly smiling crank who sits forever in publishers’ offices, with a vast portfolio under his arm, explaining with undiminishable confidence that only through his vision will the world be saved. It was that of the engraver who stopped getting assignments because he turned each one into an act of independent creation.

Celebrating Blake as “one of the subtlest and most far-reaching figures in the intellectual liberation of Europe,” Kazin once again contrasts Blake’s uncommon outsiderdom — the wellspring of his genius and visionary creativity — with that of his famously brilliant contemporaries, the Beethovens of creative history:

Beethoven could not hear the world, but he always believed in it. His struggles to sustain himself in it, on the highest level of his creative self-respect, were vehement because he could never escape the tyranny of the actual. He was against material despotisms, and knew them to be real. Blake was also against them; but he came to see every hindrance to man’s imaginative self-liberation as a fiction bred by the division in man himself. He was against society in toto: its prisons, churches, money, morals, fashionable opinions; he did not think that the faults of society stemmed from the faulty organization of society. To him the only restriction over man are always in his own mind.

Kazin contemplates how Blake’s particular paradox sheds light on our general notion of genius:

It is the mark of a genius like Blake, or Dostoevsky, or Lawrence, that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.

[…]

But there is even more in Blake’s total revelation of himself, a rage against society, a deeply ingrained personal misery, that underlies his creative exuberance and gives it a melancholy and over-assertive personal force. He defends himself in so many secret ways that when he speaks of himself, at abrupt moments, his utterances have the heart-breaking appeal of someone who cries out: “I am really different from what you know!”

In a closing passage that calls to mind James Baldwin’s abiding wisdom on how the artist’s struggle for integrity illuminates the universal human struggle of being, Kazin writes:

Blake’s tragedy was the human tragedy, made more difficult because his own fierce will to a better life prevented him from accepting any part of it… That is the personal cost he paid for his vision, as it helps us to understand his need of a myth that would do away with tragedy. But as there is something deeper than tragedy in Blake’s life, so at the heart of his work there is always the call to us to recover our lost sight. Blake was a man who had all the contraries of human existence in his hands, and he never forgot that it is the function of man to resolve them.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Portable William Blake with Virginia Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, then revisit Blake’s stunning engravings for Paradise Lost and Kazin on embracing contradiction and the power of the critical imagination.

BP

The Rocket Book: A Conceptually Ingenious, Stunningly Illustrated 1912 Children’s Book About Urban Living

An irreverent wink at the challenge of separate lives sharing space in the city.

The Rocket Book: A Conceptually Ingenious, Stunningly Illustrated 1912 Children’s Book About Urban Living

“How alive the city is,” Alfred Kazin exclaimed in his journal in the late 1950s, “how alive, how alive, how alive. Each of those windows has someone behind it… A network of people, a living field — each grass a soul, each grass alive.”

But this elated sense of the city as an arena for communion with humanity didn’t exist a mere generation earlier. It was made possible by the rapidly accelerating pace of urbanization in the early 1900s — by the end of the eighteenth century, only about one out of twenty families in America lived in cities, but by the second decade of the twentieth, the proportion had grown tenfold to one in two. Urban living also meant changing not only where people lived but how they lived — single-family homes were gradually replaced by large apartment buildings, where neighbors had to contend with maintaining separate lives in extreme proximity to one another.

That’s what Peter Newell (March 5, 1862–January 15, 1924), an artist endowed with Arthur Rackham’s superb draughtsmanship and Dr. Seuss’s irreverent wit, explores in his 1912 gem The Rocket Book (public library).

newell_rocketbook1

In this consummately illustrated story, the janitor’s mischievous son lights a rocket hidden in the basement of a towering building, a skyscraper by the era’s standards, and sends it blasting vertically upward. Each page depicts the ruckus the rocket creates as it rips through the twenty-one floors — through a writer’s typewriter, through a taxidermist’s prized walrus head, through the silverware drawer as a burglar is about to ransack it — until a can of frozen cream extinguishes it at the very top.

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In shooting up through the all building’s apartments, the rocket pierces the artificial architectural boundaries between separate lives and becomes a vehicle for what E.B. White would later call “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation” in his superb meditation on what makes a great city. Like in Newell’s conceptually groundbreaking book The Hole, published four years earlier, an actual die-cut hole punctures the physical book in the same spot on every page as the rocket blasts its way through the twenty-one stories.

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Woven into the timelessly delightful verses are the particular predicaments and norms of the time — the inhabitants of the various flats bear names as charmingly dated as Fritz, Mamie, Burt, and Gus; in the seventh flat, a woman plays the piano badly to please a man; we’re told that the man in the sixteenth flat is “a stupid guy” because he is unable to awaken early enough without an alarm clock, thus betraying the new cultural ideals of speed and productivity.

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Complement Newell’s The Rocket Book, which is in the public domain and available as a free ebook from the Library of Congress, with legendary graphic designer Paula Scher’s The Brownstone — a lovely vintage children’s book offering a very different, equally delightful take on the challenge of compressing multiple lives into a space as confined as an urban apartment building.

Thanks, Clive

BP

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