Saturday, June 27, 2015

Was Galileo Mussolini's favourite scientist ? A review of Falkowski's "Life's Engines"

Together with Darwin and Newton, Galileo forms a trio of the biggest heroes among scientists and as a result the high points of his life story have been inflicted upon the rest of us, over and over, since grade school.

But just like Darwin and Newton, the most exciting, er embarrassing, parts of his life always seem to get left out - edited out of the re-telling.

Like the Royal Society quickly collecting all of Newton's private papers and then keeping the most embarrassing (the arcane religious purposes behind his major discoveries) basically secret for centuries.

Or Darwin's distinctly nasty personal character as revealed himself, in his personal writing.

Like stealing (not figuratively but literally) valuable documents from poor widows.

All fascinating stuff air-brushed out of the much-told tale.

Atheists and their devotion to hagiography of the most shameless kind - you gotta love 'em !

I certainly never knew until now that Galileo had experimented with microscopes at the same time he first turned his telescope on the planets and upset the belief in an Earth-centred Universe.

With his genius, he might even have used his microscope observations to suggest a cause of the plague then ravaging Italy - three centuries early.

Alas - not to be so.

Now since the amazing abilities of the micro universe is the focus of this blog, I naturally read a lot of books about the amazing survival record and chemical abilities of the microbes.

So forgive me if my big takeaway from Paul G Falkowski's first popularly written effort on the wonders of the micro-world that he has explored since early childhood was his throwaway paragraph or two on Galileo's microscope.

Falkowski offers up an explanation for Galileo's failure to take the microscope any further : telescopes extended our knowledge of what we already saw with our naked eye, while microscopes required an imaginary leap into the unknown and unexpected.

This explanation is not likely to offend the scientific establishment - but it should. For if genius is all about imaginary leaps into the unknown, does this not diminish Galileo reputation greatly ?

I believe it does --- and that it should.

But it also got me wondering if Galileo could be accurately described as a proto-Futurist.

The early 20th century Futurists were a scientifically-minded bunch of artists who shared an obsession with speed and machines and war with Mussolini and Hitler.

Because Galileo was clearly unimpressed by the micro universe of tiny objects just barely moving that he saw when he peered down upon them , preferring muchly the macro universe of fast motion and big objects he gazed up at.

MacLean's magazine's Brian Bethune says that humans tend to confound bigger lifeforms with 'more complex' and 'more important' despite clear evidence to the contrary.

I dislike the ambiguity in this type of writing - for Bethune strongly implies that humans have always done thus, without saying so - and that isn't totally true.

Yes the hubris about exalting the big and dissing the small is timeless - and Galileo's behavior is just another proof of that fact.

But we non-microbiologists have really only begun to discover the importance of the smallest lifeforms to our planet in the last twenty five years - thanks to the efforts of people like Falkowski and Bethune.

Even now, every day, the microbiologists are discovering more and more the extent of the microbes' earthly dominance - a process that began for that branch of science only about 150 years ago.

We could have begun to discover this all-important fact way back in Galileo's time ------ but for his - and our - human hubris...

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