The Next Galileo

In 1588, Galileo Galilee, at the brash age of 24, delivered a snarky lecture at the Florentine Academy using mathematics and rudimentary physics to determine that Dante’s Inferno–described in the poem as having a circumference of twenty-two miles, was just about the size of the Academy’s host city, and that the baddest of the bad, Satan, could not possibly be all that he appears.

His lectures, which you can read in translation at

Mark Peterson, a the Mount Holyoke physics professor who translated the lectures, writes in his book, Galileo’s Muse: Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts, that speaker’s aim was not merely to entertain his audience concerning the work the city’s famed poet wrote two centuries previously. Nor was it an attempt (that would anticipate his challenge of Papal doctrine regarding astronomy) to use science to discredit Catholic orthodoxy, because Dante’s fictional Hell has never been adopted as accurate by any religious authority, not the least because its author put three popes (including Clementine V, who was later made a saint) in the pit.

Rather, it but to show how the arts inspire us to pay closer attention to the physical world. Peterson shows how Galileo was drawn to mathematics from his appreciation of music. He goes on to suggest that the application of physics to structural mechanics implied rather strongly that Satan, as Dante perceives him, could not exist as a giant, winged figure frozen in Hell’s icy center. Peterson feels that this lecture may have marked the first recorded use of theoretical physics in the history of science.

Though Galileo infamously was forced to recant his astronomical pronouncements and compelled to end his life under house arrest, I can’t imagine any parents who wouldn’t want their brilliant sons or daughters to attain similar scientific fame. I’d argue that more would rather have a Galileo, or a Newton, or an Einstein or a Marie Curie in the family than a Dante Aligieri, who turned to poetry after his diplomatic career ended in ignominious banishment.

If you haven’t noticed, arts education of just about every kind is under attack as an impractical waste of time. Across the country, high school arts classes are being cut back. In colleges, the “liberal arts” used to be about a body of knowledge that was supposed to help you understand the kind of truth that would set you free (the Latin “liber” in liberal means free). Some of this knowledge was in literature, the visual and performance arts, music, philosophy and history. Others were in the sciences themselves, though most liberal arts majors tended to fuzz out when they hit higher mathematics.

What happened? It’s not just that there are too many actors, artists, musicians and writers (!) in the world, but that some aren’t getting the greatest jobs upon graduation and are defaulting on their student loans.

Where did all these liberal artists come from? For the generation of Baby Boomers (of which I am a member), it was a belief in the democratic necessity of individual expression. Science and technology were important–I’ll never forget watching Neil Armstrong put his foot down on the Lunar surface–but also fearful. Computers were big, blinky things that wanted to take over the world. So many of us grew up in the Cold War, when we had to crouch against the walls of our public schools in preparation for a nuclear warhead strike.

The arts were thought to be inherently human and, even when they were angry and troubling, humane. Toward the end of the 20th century, urban school systems built arts high schools modeled on New York’s High School of the Performing Arts, on which the movie musical “Fame” was based. The hope was that specializing in the arts give young people an expressive edge and, possibly, save them from the pitfalls of urban life.

Technical academies were also built, but, as far as I know, none had movies made about how great they are. “Good Will Hunting,” set on the MIT campus in Cambridge, comes close, but, in imagining a Caucasian janitor who also happens to be a mathematical savant, it is really about the failure of society to identify and educate those who would have the most to contribute. Philadelphia’s Masterman High School, an elite public school that for the city’s best and brightest, DID have a movie shot in its halls by M. Night Shyalaman, a thoroughly ludicrous film called “The Happening” about trees that emit pollen that cause humans to kill themselves.

Sports programs remain strong. The budgets for high school and college sports continue to soar and students who win athletic scholarships are treated like young gods.

What’s hot in academia right now is STEM (not to be confused with stem cells): Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Major in these subjects in high school and college and, not only will every major corporation build an Information Superhighway to your door, but you’ll get a great salary so you can pay off your student loans on time, and maybe you’ll be that snarky Galileo (Steve Jobs?) your parents want you to be. In Northern Virginia, attending Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson for Science and Technology is seen as a Yellow Brick Road for kids who want to be the next Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg (why aren’t seeing biopics about FEMALE computer scientists?). In my county, a STEM school is under construction a few miles away.

In STEM schools, the liberal arts are not eliminated, but they are diminished, for the dubious “advanced placement” courses that are supposed to duplicate (and thus save the student from paying for) introductory undergraduate science courses. They are turning out people with good backgrounds in math and the sciences who want to take advantage of accelerated college degree programs. They probably aren’t reading much Hemingway and Emily Dickinson; seeing much Picasso, Rothko and DuChamp, writing bad poetry to those they love, trying to see the world like Georgia O’Keefe, learning how to sing and dance (at the same time!) or develop that special relationship with a musical instrument that can take you, and all who listen, into another world.

Why should they? A career in technology can take you places where, if you need any of that, you can buy it, or hire someone to do it for you.

The defenses I’ve heard of the liberal arts sound noble (part of a liberal arts education is supposed to teach you what nobility truly is–funny that so many who achieve real power either don’t know it, forget about or consciously repress the ideals that drove them to the top) but don’t quite hold up to the demand that young people get their moneys’ worth from an educational system that has always been too expensive, too exclusive, too elitist and too eager to make assurances that, at best, are based on an erudite understanding of the past. Do we still live in the world of Homer, Virgil, Malory, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Fitzgerald and Harper Lee? The liberally educated would say yes. The STEMs would not care: the future is coming and, if you can’t use what you’ve learned to make it happen, someone else will. To them, even Harry Potter’s is a distant era, and that the only resounding stories being told today are “rebooted” comic book superhero adventures that we really don’t have to know because, good always triumphs over evil, pride bends to humility, and the sequel, or the “next installment,” is only a few months away.

We can’t be certain that Prof. Peterson’s understanding of Galileo is definitive, but it is compelling. A notion in neo-Platonic philosophy was that, in order to learn, one must first develop a “love” for knowledge of that thing. For Galileo, that love seemed to be a love of the truth you find when you test what you know, and apply that experience, to what you don’t know.

Would he have become the Renaissance Man if he had turned his back on music and poetry? We can’t be sure.

But the world that has made STEM an acronym is filled with people whose scientific careers were born when they read the science fiction of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, or watched space ships fly in Star Trek and Star Wars. Some of them may have given lectures have already been given about how some of the stuff in popular science fiction just won’t happen.

But what about the stuff that just might?








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