They would sit by the river Arno,
little Galileo and his father,
to watch very closely the way in which
the waves rippled and the water swirled …
From an essay by Giorgio Spini, called "The Rationale of Galileo's Religiousness" published in 1966:"
… Perhaps one of the few sure pieces of data we can rely upon is the fact that Galileo was a child of the Galilei family of Florence.
"That is not a joke. …
"A Galilei, in sixteenth-century Florence, was not unlike a Norton or a Prescott, if not a Winthrop or an Adams, in later centuries in New England. A Bostonian Brahmin belonged to a well-defined social, cultural, and even religious environment by birth. A Renaissance Florentine (such as Galileo) was not less conditioned by his birth, if (like Galileo) he was the scion of a family of cittadini.
"From this point of view, the fact that Galileo was actually born in Pisa and resided there or in Padua for many years was irrelevant. Not all the people who were born or dwelled within the city walls were citizens of Florence, but only those whose families (like the Galilei) had given members to the city government in the past. Practically speaking, that was the same as being members of the Arti (the professionals' guild), and possibly of the Arti Maggiori, which controlled the most lucrative trades and professions.
"In her golden age, Florence was not unlike a modern corporation, whose cittadini were the shareholders by hereditary right."
The essay goes on from there to show all the ways in which Galileo's religious awareness was typical of the aristocracy of his time.
It's true, as far as it goes. But it wasn't the important thing.
"Hold the brush like this, son; that way you have more control over the width of the strokes you make…"
He had memories of early childhood: his father taking him into the fields outside Pisa in the summertime, and teaching him to sketch, or paint, or to pick out tunes on the strings of a lute.
"See how the cypresses catch the morning sun," his father would say; "see the patterns of color and shade in the olives! Each different kind of tree captures the sunlight differently; each has its own distinctive shapes and colors.
"Now watch what I do on the paper. … With a minimum of lines – without really drawing the tree -- I just brush the paper with silver-green … like so. … Only a squiggle, you see. … And a couple of touches of darker green here and here. … See how I mix the colors to match the colors of the tree over there? And look – surely this is an olive tree!
"Would you think for a minute that it was anything else? No? And yet it's only a squiggle, isn't it. Now how do you think that could be?"
That was a poser. The boy would look back and forth, from paper to reality, puzzling the way in which a squiggle could look so indisputably like one particular sort of tree.
"Now," his father would say, "watch again. … This, now, this upsurge of dark brown and green on the paper: what could it be but a cypress, eh?"
Galileo would peer over his father's arm, squinting his blue eyes against the sun, fascinated. …
"I never draw the whole tree, you see. I only put its essence on the paper. And yet, the whole tree is contained in the essence, and when you look at the essence you can see the whole tree.
"Yes, isn't it a marvel?
"The secret of sketching things is to capture essences… Here, you try it."
And with clumsy strokes, biting his tongue, the red-headed boy would struggle to capture essences as well as his father had done. …
Of course he had always known the score!
He came from a proper and re-
spectable family; he knew that he was supposed to carry on the tradition. Hadn't his father and mother reminded him a hundred times that he was named after the man who had made their family's fortunes, a hundred and fifty years before?
– Old Galileo Galilei had been a rich and successful physician, and had served a term in the service of the government as gonfaloniere di giustizia.
Of course he knew that he was not supposed to rock the boat!
If you were descended from cittadini, everyone expected you to go into business or take up a profession when you grew up; it was the accepted thing. You were supposed to make lots of money, be an outstanding civic leader, patronize the arts, read Dante and Petrarch and Boccaccio, make yourself educated and clever, charmingly witty and skeptical, and amusing. …
His father Vincenzio was a merchant, naturally. And naturally he was expected to follow in his father's footsteps.
But his father was also a lyrical musician, a gifted composer, blessed with a brilliant mathematical mind, and talented in all the arts. And the Galilei family had been good friends of the Buonarrotis for years – the family of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the great artist and sculptor, who had died just three days after Galileo was born.
So Galileo saw no particular reason why he should do what everyone expected him to, and grow up to be merely proper and respectable.
And besides, you just can't discourage a real seeker from pursuing the truth, wherever it leads and Galileo was as real as they come.
No, he had always known the score, but it was quite clear all the same – even when he was only seven or eight years old – that he would never settle for a quiet life as a proper, respectable businessman.
And even his father Vincenzio, who was so anxious to save his son from the impoverished life of the artist-philosopher, knew what Galileo would turn out to be, somewhere deep down inside.
They would sit by the river Arno, little Galileo and his father, and Vincenzio would tell him to watch very closely the way in which the waves rippled and the water swirled. …
"Just so does a great artist watch, until he looks so carefully and sees so deeply and clearly that he sees something new, and then he draws what he sees.
"And now you must listen: for just yesterday I finished boring a new wooden flute. I have brought it with me … and now I am going to make a music that flows and swirls like the river himself …"
And Vincenzio's eyes would sparkle as he played, while little Galileo began to draw. …
This is a story about the way things move.
Three times in this series, we have come up against a mystery that had to do with the way things move, and each of those times we left the mystery unsolved.
With Max Planck, for example, in the year 1900, we saw that science had been wrong about the way things move for over a century for science had been saying, since the time of Descartes and Newton, that everything moves like clockwork; but Max Planck had found that this just isn't true.
In a clockwork Universe, everything is dead; nothing moves of its own accord; everything moves (just like the gears in a clock) only because something else is pushing it.
Planck hadn't actually been able to prove that things can move without being pushed, but he had been able to show that things move in a way that doesn't really have that much to do with the way they are pushed. …
Planck found that atoms are willing to vibrate only if they are given the sort of push that they are built to accept. Other sorts of pushes just won't budge them.
He had opened the door to a world in which (as scientists were soon to discover) some things vibrate just because they vibrate, and other things stand motionless even when something gives them a shove.
Why? Nobody knew.
Down there at the sub-molecular level of reality, things were beginning to look a little bit alive. Planck had made a mystery out of the way things move.*
We turned from Planck to Albert Einstein, the man who found the first real insight into the meanng of Planck's discovery.
But we didn't leap right into Einstein's insight, because we weren't yet to the point where what Einstein had to say made any sense. Instead, we began with Einstein's childhood, and we looked at all the things in his life that made him begin to wonder why things move the way they do.
With Einstein, in the year 1897 while he was still a mere freshman in college – we saw that physics couldn't even properly explain so simple a thing as the way water moves in a bucket.
With Einstein, we saw that "ether" doesn't exist; still in the late 1890's, we tried – with Einstein to figure out how waves of light can move across the vacuum of empty space.
With Einstein, we turned to the history of science, looking for clues to explain how things move. …
And that was how we came to Galileo, the last great scientist of the Renaissance era, the era before the Clockwork Myth began – for Einstein found himself focusing in his search on the last thirty years of Galileo's life – the period when Galileo had shattered, irrevocably, the ruling philosophy of his age.
It had been a philosophy that had stood up against all criticism for 1700 years, a magnificent edifice of insight and understanding.
With one long glance through his new invention, the telescope, Galileo had made a discovery that had reduced that edifice to rubble.
Where, a moment before, all had been eloquence, elegance and harmony, suddenly there was nothing. The "ordered discourse of the schools" had turned out to be merely hot air. The Universe, which so recently had seemed to be fully and completely explained, now stood revealed as a vast and ancient mystery – a mystery that man had never fathomed.
Freed from the shackles of that philosophy, that ancient myth, Galileo had been able to construct a brand-new science – the science of motion – by means of which the mystery of the Universe began to make a certain amount of sense. It was in the pages of Galileo's new science that Einstein hoped to find the clues he was looking for.
I described something of what Galileo saw in that "one long glance" through the telescope in the last installment of this series.** But that was only one part, one facet, of what Galileo saw and what he realized.
Now I want to go into a second facet – the one that led directly to his new science of motion. It happened like this:
The philosophers and theologians of Christian Europe had been teaching for centuries that all the things that are in Heaven – the Sun, the Moon, the planets and stars – and all the powers that shape and move those things – are unimaginably different from the things and the powers that surround us here on Earth.
On Earth, they pointed out, things change from one form to another: the apple becomes a seedling, and the seedling becomes a tree; the tree is clothed in flowers in spring, in leaves all summer long, bears fruit, and then is stripped bare by the cold: it dies, becomes firewood, and returns to ashes and to dust, from which new trees will grow.
But in Heaven, things do not change – at least, not so irrevocably – because Heaven is perfect, and why should things change once they have reached perfection? The full Moon returns once a month, her face unchanged since the beginning of time. The Sun rises where it rose one year, ten years, one thousand years ago. Stars are not built and destroyed like cities; they are not born, nor do they die. Everything is always the same.
On Earth, every motion and change is unique; and each one has a beginning and an end. The leaf that falls will never fall again. But in Heaven, one motion goes on and on forever, endlessly repeating itself the motion of the stars and planets in their orbits round the Earth.
"The stars last forever," said the philosophers; "everything on Earth changes and passes away. The skies turn round us everlastingly; while on Earth, anything allowed to move freely will fall once to the ground and then stop. Obviously, since this is so, there must be an essential difference between Heaven and Earth; motion and change in Heaven and motion and change on Earth must be two entirely different things."
I described in the last installment of this series how Galileo began by turning his telescope on the Moon – and how he saw that the Moon had a face like Italy, with mountains like Italy's Apennines and valleys like the valley of the Arno.
Galileo had realized, as he gazed at the Moon, that the Word of God, which reigns unchallenged in Heaven, could not possibly be the sort of cosmic preservative – the thing that keeps the heavens perfect and changeless – that everybody seemed to think it was.
I described in the last installment how Galileo had realized that the Word of God must be the thing that makes things move and change "the indestructible essence of change – the essence of life – the ceaseless surge and flow of light."
As I say, Galileo realized much more than that.
He was a true scientist, the sort of man who is never satisfied by an easy answer. It wasn't enough for him merely to know that the Word of God is a living force, the force that makes things happen.
He had to know how the Word of God operates.
He wanted to see it in action.
He wanted to stand at the side of the Lord and watch Him move the stars around. He wanted to see how God does it.
Motion – the way God moves things about – had fascinated him ever since his childhood. Drawing things in motion had been one of the things he'd loved best about the art lessons his father had given him – and in his spare time, at the age of eight and nine, he had often amused himself by inventing toys that moved in astonishing ways, for the younger children in his family to play with.
He had invented the telescope because he had been told all his life that things in Heaven move in mysterious ways, ways that even Aristotle could not fully explain – and he had always wanted to see for himself.
And the thing he saw, in that "one long glance", that impressed him the most, was – that since there was mountain-building and erosion on the Moon, motion and change in Heaven had to be the same as motion and change on Earth!
"So," he thought to himself as he turned away from his telescope, "if I want to know how God hung the stars in Heaven, and what makes the planets move in circles through the sky, all I have to do is look around me at the Earth. Because the same thing is going on right here and now! The same Word is in control. …"
There is a book currently in print, called The Gospel According to Thomas, which is the English translation of a manuscript which was discovered in 1945, in a ruined tomb in upper Egypt, after having been lost and forgotten for 1600 years. The manuscript had been preserved in 13 leather-bound papyrus volumes, which someone had stored in jars in the tomb and which had then been covered by the shifting sands.
Galileo didn't know about this manuscript, of course – he realized what he realized on his own.
But I want to mention Thomas's gospel here for the simple reason that it's relevant.
The manuscript was an account of Christ's teachings by a man, Didymas Thomas, who might well have been the Doubting Thomas of the Bible. It is apparently genuine a set of the remembered sayings of Christ which went south into Africa instead of going northwest into Europe, and which was irrevocably lost to European Christianity at the time when the Moslem Empire arose.
In this manuscript, Jesus's disciples ask him the same questions over and over again: "Where is the Kingdom of Heaven? When will the resurrection of the dead take place? When will the new world, the millenium of peace, finally come?"
And Jesus replies, over and over again:
"If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the Kingdom of God is in Heaven,' then the birds of the skies will get there before you. But the Kingdom is not up there in Heaven.
"What you expect – the new world that you're waiting for – has already come, but you know it not.
"The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the Earth – and men do not see it. …"
And you may be recalling another passage, from the Bible: "Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom. …"
We are in Heaven," Galileo thought suddenly, "and Heaven is on Earth!"
He found himself remembering things that he'd noticed as a kid, learning to draw at his father's knee. Things about the way things moved. …
Did the planets really circle endlessly in the skies for the same reason that a leaf falls once to the ground and never again? Did they really move in the same way as the toys he'd used to build? How could that be so?
There was a memory tugging at the edge of his thoughts, if he could only remember it … something that had happened to him when he was twelve or thirteen…
# "The Making of Albert Einstein", And It Is Divine, September 1974
* "The Emperor's New Clothes", November 1974.
** "When the Stars Began to Speak": Part One, in the December 1974 issue; Part Two, in March 1975.