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Galileo Galilei: When the World Stood Still

Atle Næss, translated by James Anderson
Springer Verlag
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Alexander J. Hahn
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The basic questions about the relationship between science and religion are as current and challenging in the 21st century as ever before.   Are these domains fundamentally in conflict or in harmony? How are the tensions between them — those embedded, for example, in the realms of evolution, cosmology, molecular biology, and ecological concerns — to be resolved? This is surely a large part of the reason why the story of Galileo, a historical drama that resides at the interface between science and religion, continues to attract with unabated energy the interest of the public (see references [1] and [5]) and the academic community alike (see [2], [3] and [4]).

The book under review is a translation of the original Da Jorden stod Stille that won the Brage Award for the best Norwegian work of non-fiction in 2001. It tells the story of Galileo with an efficient, sure, sensitive, and well researched brush. It does so in a remarkably economical 221 pages that are divided into seven chapters: The Musician's Son, Signs in the Sky, A New World, Friendship and Power, Deaths and Omens, the Inquisition's Chambers, and Eternity.

Naess outlines the broader context of the Counterreformation, the Council of Trent, the role of the Jesuit and Dominican orders and the Roman Inquisition, and the changing nature of the papacy. He tells us about the circle of influential friends that the career and success driven Galileo developed in Florence, Padua, Rome and Venice. Naess describes Galileo's often arrogant, dismissive, and contentious communications with his interlocutors about matters of science. He outlines the astronomical discoveries that begin to undermine the deeply entrenched Aristotelian-Ptolemaic view of the physical world. He sketches the transformation in the outlook of Urban VIII from progressive thinker and poet to autocratic pontiff fending off the charge that he was weak in his defense of the faith.

From within these larger dynamics, Naess develops the drama of Galileo from its triumphs to the disastrous encounter with the Roman Inquisition. When appropriate, Naess livens up his narrative along the way by inserting interesting accounts, on occasion with testimony from eyewitnesses. One of these recounts describes Father Scheiner (an influential Jesuit astronomer on Galileo's list of adversaries) responding to a glowing assessment in a Roman bookshop of the newly arrived Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems, as "...completely shaken up, his face changing colour, and with a huge trembling of his waist and his hands, so much so that the book dealer, who recounted the story ... " Another, by the Galileo's contemporary, the Jesuit mathematician Grienberger offers the following important reflection "If Galileo had known how to keep the affection of the Fathers of the College [the Jesuits' Collegium Romanum], he would live gloriously in this world and none of his bad times would have come to pass and he would have been able to write as he wished about everything, even, I say, about the motion of the earth.'"

One negative aspect of Naess's account has to do with the presentation of Galileo's theory of motion and in particular the account of the Galileo's Two New Sciences in the chapter Meeting with Infinity. For example, Galileo, in order to understand that the trajectory of a projectile is parabolic, needed not only to draw on his realization that such a motion can be considered as the independent composite of a horizontal and vertical motion (which Naess points to), but also on a principle of horizontal inertia (a crucial insight by Galileo that is omitted by Naess), as well as his insight of the "time squared" law of fall. In short, Naess's is less surefooted with his descriptions of Galileo's contributions to our understanding of motion than he is elsewhere. There is the related problem of Naess's reliance on Stillman Drake's work on Galileo's mechanics. It has been established (see [2] for instance) that Drake much exaggerates both the conceptual power and the accuracy of Galileo's experiments.

The criticism just offered is however but a minor distraction. In summary, Naess weaves an excellent account of the story of Galileo. Addressed to the sophisticated general reader, it is an account that is alive, articulate, and well constructed, and one that provides the important larger context that surrounds the drama itself. This reviewer recommends it highly to anyone interested in a succinct and comprehensive look at the "saga" of Galileo.


[1] Philip Glass, Galileo Galilei, Opera, 2002.

[2] Alexander Hahn, "The Pendulum Swings again: A Mathematical Reassessment of Galileo's Experiments with Inclined Planes", Arch. Hist. Exact Sci. 56, 2002.

[3] Ernan McMullin, editor, The Church And Galileo, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

[4] Jürgen Renn, editor, Galileo in Context, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[5] Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter, Walker Books, 1999.

Alexander J. Hahn is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, IN.

Prologue: A Journey to Rome
The Musician's Son
A Gifted Young Tuscan
To Rome and the Jesuits
A Surveyor of Inferno
The Spheres fromthe Tower
From Pisa to Padua
Signs in the Sky
De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium
Lecturer and Designer
A Professor's Commitments
Modern Physics Is Born
A New Star in an Unchanging Sky?
Drawing Close to a Court
The Balls Fall into Place
The Roman Style
The Tube with the Long Perspective
A New World
Jupiter's Sons
Johann Kepler, Imperial Mathematician
Several Signs in the Sky
Friendship and Power
A Dispute About Objects that Float in Water
Sun, Stand Thou Still upon Gibeon!
The Letter to Castelli
How to Go to Heaven