Friday, May 6, 2011

Book Review for Galileo by Mitch Stokes

Galileo (Christian Encounters Series)

I was given a copy of Galileo by Mitch Stokes for free by the Thomas Nelson book publishers (a.k.a. Booksneeze) in exchange for my honest review. I eagerly looked forward to receiving this book because Galileo is one of those famous people that I knew had something to do with science, maybe he got in trouble for it by church officials.....Anyway, I thought to myself, “Aha! Now I'm going to learn who exactly this person is, when he lived, what he did and what happened to him for it.”

And that is exactly what happened. This book is an excellent biography of one of the most important scientist/mathematicians in history and also one of the most misunderstood-not only in his own time but our own.

Stokes' biography sets the stage by starting with Galileo's ancestry, his father's place in society (he was a court musician) and finally Galileo's birth: 1564-the same year Shakespeare was born and Michelangelo and John Calvin died. Galileo was educated by monks and his father wanted him to become a Medical Doctor which was a respected profession that one could make a living at. Galileo wanted to become a mathematician-which was not a respected profession and provided no job opportunity. I wanted to throw that in because it's so different, at least in regard to mathematics, from our present world. It's also interesting to note that music was highly regarded, considered a branch of mathematics and philosophy was also respected-more than math. Very different from today as well.

Galileo did not want to become a Medical Doctor he wanted to become a mathematician. He eventually got his way and was able to make something of a living at it by teaching at universities and personally instructing Dukes and such in courts.

So. What makes Galileo so special? We have to back up to what people currently believed and the scientists that came right before Galileo that changed his own thinking.

For centuries Europe in the middle ages had complete faith in the Greek ancients. Most of their scientific and mathematical beliefs were based on Aristotelian philosophies and theories. In fact, Church doctrine had become so intertwined with Aristotelianism that they accused people (like Galileo it would turn out) of contradicting the Church and scripture when, in fact, they were only contradicting Aristotle's theorems and postulates.

The problem with Aristotle's mathematical theories involving the Earth and it's place in the universe is that it was fitting less and less with observed data. After a while as discoveries continued to mount the Aristotelian model became so cumbersome that it

 Became impossible to describe the motion of the heavens beyond a rough approximation. This actually had religious ramifications. Calendars were important for predicting holy days, particularly Easter. The Church called for reform, and they called for a Catholic cleric to help. (pg. 65)

The Catholic cleric who came to the rescue was a church official from Poland who studied astronomy and law. This cleric decided that in order to simplify the mathematics and reform the Church calendar he would first have to reform astronomy. This cleric was none other than Copernicus. He wrote a book De Revolutionibus in which he explains, among other things, the mathematical formula for the heavenly spheres not the least of which is making the sun the center of the Universe.

We can identify perhaps ten people in the world who held Copernicus' view between 1543 and 1600. it seems that Galileo was one of these ten. (pg. 67)

Galileo eventually developed a twenty power spy glass (today called a telescope) which enabled him to make such amazing observations that he published a pamphlet called Sidereal Nuncius (Starry Messenger). These observations concerned the appearance of the moon and the stars which contradicted Aristotle's views on the moon. He also later made many revolutionary discoveries about the other planets and their relationship to the sun.

Galileo later published these findings in a book called Dialogue. (The reason for the title is that Galileo uses a writing device in which he explains his theories in the form of a dialogue between three men, a popular method of writing at the time.)

Now comes the problem: Stokes explains just why the Roman inquisition decided to condemn Galileo's works and force him to recant them or die by torture. Basically, the Pope and certain Church leaders decided that Galileo's (and Copernicus') assertion that the sun did NOT revolve around the earth but rather the opposite contradicted scripture. They pointed to the scripture in the book of Joshua where God made the sun stand still in order to prolong the battle for the Israelite's victory (Joshua 10:1-15). If the Bible said the sun stood still, then it means that the sun moved, not the earth. To state otherwise, of course, was heresy.

Not all church officials held this view, however. Some agreed with Galileo (who was a devout Catholic and never believed his theories contradicted scripture) that scripture can be taken a number of ways: literally, figuratively or written according to man's contemporary understanding. In the case of Joshua, the sun standing still was intended to be a case of observation and not a scientific assertion about the motion of the planets and their relationship to the sun. In other words, Joshua wrote what he saw not what actually took place (being on the earth it would be impossible to see it move).

Galileo wrote in a letter to a friend:

The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to shouldn't therefore, surprise us when Scripture speaks figuratively or accommodates its language to the views of its original recipients..(pg. 124)

The Church, while acknowledging that one could look at Scripture in more than one way, stipulated that Scripture had to be interpreted according to how the Holy See interpreted it.

The counsel prohibits interpreting Scripture against the common consensus of the Holy Fathers. (pg. 124)

This is where Galileo ran into trouble. It wasn't that his theories necessarily contradicted Scripture. It was that they contradicted how certain (but definitely not all) Church leaders saw it. He spent the last few years of his life under house arrest and was not exonerated until Pope John Paul II.

In 1992 a Commission reported to the pope:

It is in that historical and cultural framework, far removed from our own times, that Galileo's judges, incapable of dissociating faith from an age-old cosmology, believed quite wrongly, that the adoption of the Copernican revolution, in fact not yet definitely proven, was such as to undermine Catholic tradition and that it was their duty to forbid its being taught. This subjective error of judgment, so clear to us today, led them to a disciplinary measure from which Galileo 'had much to suffer'...(pg. 194)

Stokes' describes in a clear, concise way, the history of the contemporary beliefs of the church, the way education and politics were run in 16th cent. Italy and how the Church governed the populace. Galileo was misunderstood back then but, Stokes points out, he is also misunderstood today. Galileo never once thought that science contradicted Holy Scripture. He believed that as science brought greater understanding to how the universe was run we needed to look at certain Scripture in a different light.

Galileo's own conscience was clear both as Catholic and as scientist. On one occasion he wrote, almost in despair, that at times he felt like burning all his work in science but he never so much as thought of tuning his back on his faith. (from the Preface).

In conclusion, this book is for history lovers-especially of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and also for those of us who may not know much about science and math but enjoy reading about the historical development of both.
If you buy this book please do so through my link below so I can receive a small commission, thanks!!


  1. Wow, you read a lot of different books .... hopping back :-)

  2. Wow, what a fascinating book and a great review as well. I always found Galileo almost a mystical figure.

  3. @ Man of la Book. Thanks! I was glad to finally know exactly who Galileo was and what he did.

  4. Sharon, I just saw your comments on my review. I am still learning blogs.
    Your review is great.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.