The Dutch telescope and the Italian scientist Galileo have long enjoyed a durable connection in the popular mind--so much so that it seems this simple glass instrument transformed a rather modest middle-aged scholar into the bold icon of the Copernican Revolution. And yet the extraordinary speed with which the telescope changed the course of Galileo's life and early modern astronomy obscures the astronomer's own curiously delayed encounter with the instrument. This book considers the lapse between the telescope's creation in The Hague in 1608 and Galileo's alleged acquaintance with such news ten months later. In an inquiry into scientific and cultural history, Eileen Reeves explores two fundamental questions of intellectual accountability: what did Galileo know of the invention of the telescope, and when did he know it?
The record suggests that Galileo, like several of his peers, initially misunderstood the basic design of the telescope. In seeking to explain the gap between the telescope's emergence and the alleged date of the astronomer's acquaintance with it, Reeves explores how and why information about the telescope was transmitted, suppressed, or misconstrued in the process. Her revised version of events, rejecting the usual explanations of silence and idleness, is a revealing account of the role that misprision, error, and preconception play in the advancement of science.
Along the way, Reeves offers a revised chronology of Galileo's life in a critical period and, more generally, shows how documents typically outside the scope of early modern natural philosophy--medieval romances, travel literature, and idle speculations--relate to two crucial events in the history of science.
Galileo is mistakenly believed by many to have invented the telescope--a misconception that the scientist did little to correct in his own time. Rather, as Reeves, an associate professor of comp lit at Princeton, reminds readers in reviewing both the myths and facts of telescopy, Galileo perfected a relatively crude Dutch invention that he had gotten wind of. It was his improved version, which he christened a telescope, that he used to discover the four large moons around Jupiter and the topography of the Earth's moon. However, as Reeves recounts, reports of magical mirrors and lenses dated back to the lighthouse of ancient Alexandria, which according to legend, was topped by an enormous mirror that could spy enemy ships and set them on fire. Stories circulated about other cultures, often Eastern, whose rulers used mirrors to keep a watchful eye on their citizens and spot invaders from afar. The English friar and scientist Francis Bacon intrigued generations with stories of marvelous looking glasses and a mirror that Julius Caesar supposedly used to observe the coast of England from France. In Galileo's time, the author reports, many scientists and amateurs were experimenting with optics and purloining each other's results in a complex game of cross-national thievery. Reeves's study is a skillful interpretative blend of legend, history and science about lenses, mirrors and their conjoining in the telescope. 5 illus. (Jan.)
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Harvard University Press
January 30, 2008
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