Galileo: Watcher of the Skies

David Wootton

"Wootton's biography has much to recommend it. It is engagingly written and offers fresh insights into Galileo's intellectual development." - Standpoint Magazine

"Wootton. . . argues persuasively in this well researched, intellectual biography that Galileo was a Copernican long before his discovery of the moons of Jupiter proved that not all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth." - The Telegraph

"Urgent. . . will garner. . . immediate interest and controversy." - Literary Review

Galileo (1564–1642) is one of the most important and controversial figures in the history of science. A hero of modern science and key to its birth, he was also a deeply divided man: a scholar committed to the establishment of scientific truth yet forced to concede the importance of faith, and a brilliant analyst of the elegantly mathematical workings of nature yet bungling and insensitive with his own family.

Tackling Galileo as astronomer, engineer, and author, David Wootton places him at the centre of Renaissance culture. He traces Galileo through his early rebellious years; the beginnings of his scientific career constructing a “new physics”; his move to Florence seeking money, status, and greater freedom to attack intellectual orthodoxies; his trial for heresy and narrow escape from torture; and his house arrest and physical (though not intellectual) decline. David reveals much that is new—from Galileo’s premature Copernicanism to a previously unrecognized illegitimate daughter—and, controversially, rejects the long-established orthodoxy which holds that Galileo was a good Catholic.

Absolutely central to Galileo’s significance—and to science more broadly—is the telescope, the potential of which Galileo was the first to grasp. David makes clear that it totally revolutionized and galvanized scientific endeavor to discover new and previously unimagined facts. Drawing extensively on Galileo’s voluminous letters, many of which were self-censored and sly, this is an original, arresting, and highly readable biography of a difficult, remarkable Renaissance genius.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History. He is the author of numerous books and essays, most recently Bad Medicine, and contributes regularly to the London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement.

David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies (Yale University Press, 2010)

Wootton’s Galileo is many things: private unbeliever, reluctant empiricist and impetuous thinker. This brilliant book traces Galileo’s difficult negotiations of academic jealousies, court politics and ecclesiastical scrutiny, allows us to imagine the excitement and danger of looking through a telescope in Venice, and gives fresh insights into the mind and the man as father and son. A remarkable achievement. - Justin Champion