A Glimpse of Galileo

Galileo’s Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is a story inside of a biography inside of a science fiction novel. There are times where you never really know exactly when you are or why, but the view is only slightly less amazing than the conversations. For me, the real story takes place in 17th century Italy, following Galileo Galilei from Padua to Venice to Florence to Rome.

Yes, there is story. There are invented conversations and a few important fictional characters. But the story, the real story, is that of the real Galileo. And the narrative is packed with the real Galileo’s efforts to declare that “it moves.”

The biography follows Galileo’s career from the early 17th century, when he improved upon methods he had heard describing a Dutch telescope of 3X magnification. Soon, he was looking at the night sky, where he became entranced with the movement of what seemed to be stars moving near Jupiter. These “stars” he finally described as moons of Jupiter, moons that orbited that planet as our moon seemed to orbit ours. These observations led, eventually, to his proclamation that Copernicus was right. The earth moves around the sun, not the other way around.

Robinson also fills his narrative with details of early 17th century Italian culture that bring the picture to vivid life. We travel with Galileo over dusty, rutted roads between Florence and Rome. We overeat and gaily drink with him as he is feted from palazzo to palazzo as the latest rage in philosophy. One devoted follower wrote thanking him for the nip of inspiration he had provided, to which Robinson has Galileo mutter, “Alas, I am now the mosquito of philosophy.”

By day, we boast of our accomplishments. We hope that modern medicine will keep us from the travails that keep him awake at night, moaning in pain. We ignore the advice of our friends who try to tell us to be careful. The wrong people are paying attention. Even then, as we stumble from the room in which we have been forced to recant, we mumble as he is said to have done, “Still, it moves.”

In other words, “Galileo’s Dream” is a book that takes you there, that tells you more than most of us can understand about mathematics, about folds in time. Robinson convinces us that Galileo understands every word. You don’t have to do so. You just get to be there when his bells ring.

Push like Galileo pushed! And together we may crab sideways toward the good.