Reading Diary: Galileo by J.L. Heilbron

Mar 14 2011 Published by under astronomy, book review, science books

Here's a hint. Never, ever, ever put the following sentence in any non-fiction book you are writing:

This is dull stuff. (p. 165)


An object lesson on non-success for popular science books to compare and contrast with an object lesson for success in popular science books.

But, to be fair, the book under consideration isn't really a popular science book. J.L. Heilbron's new Galileo is a scholarly scientific biography of Galileo and as such shouldn't really be compared to popular science books.

On the other hand, it was a topic I expected to really enjoy but I did end up struggling quite a bit to actually get all the way through the book. It's quite detailed, quite chronological and quite scientific so it's a challenge. Not to mention that the best part, Galileo's standoff with the pope and Catholic church, really only gets going in the last fifty pages or so.

In fact, Galileo's long-running conflicts with religious authority do get a bit of a short shrift in the book as it concentrates on the day to day and year to year details of Galileo's life, really concentrating on locating him firmly within the currents of Renaissance Italian culture. Which is fine, of course, if that's what you want.

In the end, I'm glad I got through the book as I did learn a lot. On the other hand, this is a good case of a spoon full of sugar would have made the medicine go down a bit easier. More of a narrative drive to the "story" of Galileo's life would have been appreciated. As well, locating Galileo's significance in a modern context was really left for only the last few pages.

I would definitely recommend this book to any academic or institutional library collecting in the history of science or other relevant fields like religious or Italian studies. I have a hard time imagining any but the largest of public libraries really needing this book at all. I would also have trouble recommending this book to any but the most hardcore amateur historians of science unless they were really Galileo fanatics. In both cases, Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love is a book I would recommend instead. It's a better book for public libraries and for historians of science with a more casual interest in Galileo.

Heilbron, J.L. Galileo. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 528pp. ISBN-13: 978-0199583522

(Book provided by publisher.)

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