Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – Galileo Galilei

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The final, and longest, book in my August reading marathon of important scientific works is also definitely the oldest and arguably the most significant in the leap of understanding passed on to those members of the public able to read a copy. Published originally in 1632 in Italian so that it was more accessible to the general public than it would have been if written in Latin it was immediately seen as an attack on the Catholic church as it presented as valid the then heretical Copernican system of the Sun at the centre of the Solar System rather than everything rotating around the Earth as taught by Aristotle and Ptolemy and adopted as clearly correct by the church as Earth should be the centre of Gods handiwork. Galileo was duly tried by the Inquisition and sentenced to life imprisonment at home and the book remained on the Catholic church’s list of banned works for over 200 years until 1835.

It is styled as a conversation over four days between three characters, Salviati is the instigator of the meetings and is clearly a Copernican, Simplicio is an adherent to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic systems and Sagredo is there initially to play devils advocate putting questions to both of the others but towards the end is obviously swayed by Salviati. Both Salviati and Sagredo are based on real people with those names who had been friends of Galileo but had both died many years before publication so could not be implicated by their names being used, whilst Simplicio appears to have got his name from the Italian word semplice which means simple minded. The choice of this name for the character backing the Ptolemaic system was also not lost on the Inquisition. Galileo was well aware that he was pushing at boundaries and originally got permission from the church to write a book about tides which grew into the final work covering far more than his original proposal, but even the characters acknowledge that this is potentially dangerous territory.

We are arguing for our own amusement, and are not obligated to any such strictness as one would be who was methodically treating a subject for professional reasons, with the intention of publishing it … it should be almost as if we had met to tell stories, so that it is permitted for me to relate anything which hearing yours may call to mind.

This edition was published by The Folio Society in 2013 using a translation originally done by Stillman Drake in 1953. It includes a modern introduction by Dava Sobel along with a foreword by Albert Einstein, which presumably dates back to the first publication of this translation. I did struggle a little with the verbose nature of the translation which whilst it may reflect Galileo’s original did also mean that I several times had to reread a sentence to make sure I followed the text correctly. This is not helpful when I was also trying to appreciate the leaps being made by Galileo whilst reminding myself that this was written decades before Newton formulated the Theory of Gravity so Galileo was truly groundbreaking in his explanations. His theoretically neutral but definitively pro-Copernican text starts from first principles with balls rolling down a slope to end up with not only the Earth rotating each 24 hours but also orbiting the Sun each year with the angle of the Earth’s axis also included to explain the equinoxes.

That is not to say that everything is correct as we would understand the cosmos now, Galileo has astronomical distances far too small, although much exceeding that of his contemporaries. A good example of this is the section of detailed calculations surrounding the two supernova that had been observed in the last few decades before he wrote the book. He is rightly dismissive of a book which aimed to prove that that these occurred within the orbit of the Moon so as to not disturb the changeless firmament which does so by carefully choosing between astronomical measurements of the period so as to find ones with sufficient error to support the authors position. However Galileo makes the same error in his selection by dismissing not only these examples but also any that would imply the nova occurred at an infinite distance from Earth which using the methods explained would actually have been the correct solution. Instead Galileo had decided that the stars were roughly six to eight times as far away as Saturn (then the furthest known planet) although some “could be two or three times further than that” to explain relative brightness and apparent size. He duly provides many pages of calculations regarding the sample set he has chosen, which are clearly there just to demolish the book and author he dislikes. Other ‘scientific’ books and papers from his time are likewise introduced and their methodology and reasoning torn apart. Galileo clearly wanted to leave no stone un-turned in his defence of Copernicus.

In the final section Galileo covers the subject that he originally stated was to be the main topic of the work, that is the tides and what causes them. Fortunately this makes up a tiny proportion of the whole book as sadly this is another area where he is in error by effectively ascribing them to the rotation of the Earth and the consequential ‘sloshing’ of the waters in the seas. The examples of mistakes given above are entirely understandable given the groundbreaking nature of the book and although I feel the translation could have been better this is still a book I thoroughly enjoyed as the insights presented by Galileo are not only good examples for today but give an understanding of the reasoning of the time and the turmoil between science and the Catholic church that would hold back scientific advances within its sphere of influence for decades if not centuries to come.

Galileo finally received an apology for his treatment at the hands of the church on the 31st October 1991 from Pope John Paul II over three hundred and fifty years too late.

The Voyage of the HMS Beagle – Charles Darwin

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At over 206,000 words this is the second of the three large books for my August scientific reading marathon. I chose it in preference to The Origin of Species (first published 1859) for several reasons, including the fact that it is a lot more readable, but mainly because in this you can see Darwin slowly edging towards the theory that would make him famous. This is especially true of the second edition (1845, the first edition was in 1839, twenty years before his more famous work), the text of which is used for this book as Darwin altered sections in light of his research and developing thoughts. Another reason is that I love the work of Robert Gibbings who illustrated this Heritage Press volume. Although called a journal which implies a diary like approach, and yes most of the entries do have the date at their start, it is not chronological. We do bounce around a bit for a few years as The Beagle was on a nearly five year surveying mission so tends to revisit places several times and Darwin to make things clearer and avoid the obvious repetition has entries that may be months or years apart but which are put together because geographically they make more sense that way. It actually took me a while to realise what was going on and it was only when I stepped back a couple of pages to refresh my memory that I spotted that the entry there was two years after the one I was reading.

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Throughout the text you can see Darwin edging towards evolution and the concept of gradual change in species. He also references many species which have the dubious distinction of being ‘described by Darwin but now extinct’ including a type of cattle in South America and on the Falkland Islands a species of wolf which he describes as a fox when he sees it and noted it’s decline.

Their numbers have rapidly decreased; they are already banished from that half of the island which lies to the eastward of the neck of land between St Salvador Bay and Berkeley Sound. Within a very few years after these islands shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the Earth.

This may well be the earliest documented use of the dodo as a reference point for extinction of a species.

When you think of Darwin’s voyage then most people automatically think about the Galapagos Islands but in truth he spent very little time there arriving on 15th September and on his way to Tahiti by 20th October 1835. Just over a month out of a almost five year voyage and they take up in this edition twenty seven pages out of almost five hundred despite having more illustrations than most other sections. What we do get is a basic description of what have become known as Darwin’s finches as he realises that the bill shapes on different islands vary dramatically in order to make best use of the food supplies found there. Despite the giant tortoises being the most famous residents and symbol of the archipelago it was the finches that really drove his realisation of what became known as evolution. He is also one of the first people to accurately describe the marine iguanas found exclusive on these islands and notice their diet of seaweed rather then the belief up until then that they were after fish.

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When reading the book one thing you notice is just how much time Darwin isn’t on board The Beagle, he goes off on long expeditions inland sometimes for weeks at a time whilst Captain Fitzroy is engaged on his duties creating charts for the admiralty. You therefore get long passages where he either makes circuits when the ship will be in one place for a period of time or he arranges to meet the vessel at a specified port further along the coast. The observations he makes away from the coastal areas add greatly to his geological studies and give fascinating diversions to life on board ship, but I suspect they are also inspired by his desire to be on solid ground due to the really bad seasickness he was prone to, which almost made him leave the expedition within a few weeks of the start. Science was greatly enhanced by his decision to keep going regardless but it was so close to being abandoned before he could make any of his discoveries.

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Towards the end of the book the Beagle goes to the Keeling Islands and it is here that Darwin comes up with a theory for how coral islands and reefs are formed and ultimately writes another book on the subject. This is one of the few passages where the text becomes difficult to follow as he references maps from the other book without the reader of this volume having access to them, but there is enough for you to understand the process proposed. Other than this section the book is extremely readable even in this full form. Most versions printed nowadays, including the Penguin Classics edition are heavily edited and have more than 25% removed coming out at less than 150,000 words, which is still a substantial work but I would rather read a complete edition.

The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene

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I bought this book in the July 2020 Folio Society sale specifically for this August science marathon which I have just realised I am reading in order of length. After the relatively short ‘The Double Helix’ last week I jump to the 432 pages of this volume, next weeks is a similar length and the final book to tackle is over 550 pages. If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that I do a reading marathon each August, previously I have read multiple books each week but this year I have decided to tackle major scientific works at the rate of one a week when normally I would have interleaved them with shorter and easier works. So what is the importance of ‘The Elegant Universe? Well it was originally published in 1999 and is one of the first books to attempt to summarise the issues between Einstein’s relativity theories and quantum mechanics and then go on to explain a possible solution to their inconsistencies using String Theory to a readership that is not composed solely of physicists. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize so definitely qualifies for my requirement to be a significant science work for this months readings and represents theoretical physics as I have previously read and reviewed the logical book for this subject namely Einstein’s own book on Relativity.

After a couple of brief introductions, one written in 2017 especially for this new edition, and a brief summary of the current understanding of elementary particles which makes up section one of the book Professor Greene dives straight in with two chapters on the General and Special Theories of Relativity, how these moved us on from the Newtonian Laws of Motion and the odd effects that are predicted by Einsteins equations. After this is a chapter giving a good introduction to Quantum Mechanics, which is a surprisingly easy read given the counter intuitive behaviours of forces and particles at this level of magnification. These are followed by a chapter entitled The Need for a New Theory where he looks specifically at the contradictions between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and the problems that are faced by physicists trying to unite the two in the search for the Theory of Everything. These four chapters make up the second section of the book and cover ground I was already familiar with however I have not read up on String Theory so from here on the theoretical physics was all new.


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The chapters get ever more complicated  as they try to explain the various aspects of String Theory, which by its very nature as the search for The Theory of Everything has to stretch from atomic level to cosmology. Professor Greene is very good at using analogies to express complex thoughts in a way the reader can approach them. For those who are fans of the Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine you will be pleased to find that String Theory allows for wormholes to exist. Spoiler alert – they probably don’t but at least there is some physics behind the idea as shown on the page spread above.

One potentially good way that the entire book is written is the ability of the reader to take it at their own pace and also to decide how deep they want to go. This is done by use of an extensive notes section at the back of the book which moves more complex discussions of points raised along with most of the mathematics out of the main body of the text. Now for me this became increasingly annoying as I had to keep two bookmarks to track where I was up to and to make skipping to the notes section easier but it does make the main text simpler to follow for the more lay reader who after all is probably the target audience.

Am I convinced by String Theory after finishing the book? The answer is probably no, there are far too many places where the solution to problems within the theory appear to be solved by the ‘with one giant leap our hero escapes’ methodology favoured by Flash Gordon short films from the 1930’s. Be it the ‘convenient’ choice of three holes in the six dimensions curved around a string so that the known three families of particles are predicted by approximate mathematical formulas. Or the super-symmetrical particles which are a cornerstone of most string theories (of which there are five versions which also doesn’t seem like a solid foundation) not being found as expected by the Large Hadron Collider so the assumptions of which they are based being changed so they ‘couldn’t have been discovered with current technology’ there are too many holes being papered over. Even assuming that the mathematics is finally worked out, and there is almost forty years of people trying, the idea that a mathematical model is also the physical construct is dubious to say the least and there is no need for the actual physical basis of the universe to match the mathematical representation for a theory to be valid in predicting motion and inter-reaction but String Theorists insist that this is the case.

Twenty years on from the book being written even those heavily involved in the physics back then are starting to have doubts about some of what is suggested. The most obvious candidate is super-symmetry. This is seen as one of the most important signatures that String Theory is correct and is number one on the list of things that ‘will prove or disprove the theory’ included in the book but few physicists now believe it is true as can be judged by this extract of a Royal Institution lecture by Dan Hooper, Head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the USA. Maybe String Theory will unravel, maybe it will be adapted to match experimental reality, who knows, but it is an fascinating subject and needs to be tackled to understand the fundamental basis of reality.

Read the book, it’s difficult, even with the solid background in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics that I have, but worth it. It will challenge your understanding of these subjects and that can only be a good thing, physics and mathematics rely on constantly pushing the boundaries and at least at the moment String Theory is the only game in town that attempts to mesh the Quantum Mechanics and what is happening at the smallest boundaries with Relativity and the physics of huge distances. It might be right, it might be wrong, but it will certainly push the boundaries of scientific endeavour for many years to come.

The Double Helix – James D Watson

For this years August reading marathon I have decided to tackle four of the most significant science books that I have on my shelves. Unlike previous years where I have needed to read multiple books in a week this year I only have one at a time but because of their very nature these books are not something you can quickly get through and rush onto the next one, also two of them are over 500 pages in length. Three are published by the Folio Society and the other by Heritage Press in America who often produced books of a similar quality until they ceased publishing.

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I’m starting with what is arguably the most significant scientific discovery of the twentieth century, the structure of DNA and how it could pass on genetic material. It is written by one of the three Nobel Prize winners for the discovery and provides a fascinating account of the race to be the first to crack how this mechanism worked and indeed what it was that did it. Now I freely admit that biology is easily my weakest science having dropped the subject at sixteen so was a little wary of this book and whether it was just going to go over my head but I need not have worried as Watson’s style pulls the reader along so that even in the technical parts I could keep up.

I hadn’t realised how quickly the science behind genetics changed in the early 1950’s or how competitive the search for the solution as to how genetic material was passed on became. Watson provides a good overview of the state of the science after the war where the general consensus was that the information had to be in proteins because they were more complex than DNA appeared to be so that had to be where something so important was encoded. Watson himself became interested in bacteriophages (phages for short) which are viruses which can have within them either DNA or the simpler RNA molecules surrounded by proteins and in 1951 started work at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge where he first met Francis Crick and the story begins. The original foreword which is included in this volume is by their departmental head Sir Lawrence Bragg who had himself won the Nobel Prize in 1915 for his work on X-Ray diffraction which was ultimately the way used to confirm the helical nature of DNA. Bragg says in his foreword regarding Watson’s style and tone in the book

He writes with Pepys like frankness. Those who figure in the book must read it in a very forgiving spirit. One must remember that his book is not a history, but an autobiographical contribution to the history which will someday be written. As the author himself says, the book is a record of impressions rather than historical facts.

Watson does indeed explain that he compiled the book from letters and diaries, which explains the large number of personal details such as dinners and his accommodation problems being included which all provide a more rounded narrative than the straight science. As for the Pepys like frankness, Bragg himself is subject to a few scathing comments especially when he specifically requires Crick and Watson to stop working on DNA and get on with what they were supposed to be doing. But his main target as a person obstructing their progress is Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant chemist and exponent of X-Ray crystalline photography and who took the images which ultimately confirmed Watson and Crick’s model. Franklin did not work with either Watson or Crick she was based in Kings College, London working with Maurice Wilkins or more accurately working against him according to this book as the two did not get on either personally or professionally so Watson’s impressions of her are strongly coloured by Wilkins’ opinions. Wilkins would ultimately share the Nobel prize with Crick and Watson in 1962, sadly Franklin had died of cancer in 1958 and posthumous prizes have only been awarded twice and have been specifically prohibited since 1974. Watson however has said that he thought she should have been included in 1962.

The tension mounts as Watson describes the various groups working on the genetic solution which ultimately comes down to three teams racing for the prize. Crick and Watson in Cambridge, Wilkins and Franklin in London and Linus Pauling in America. Ironically Pauling would also be a Nobel laureate in 1962 but he won the Peace prize for this campaign against nuclear testing. Wilkins and Franklin were the closest technically but due to their failure to work together were starting to trail but what really prompted Watson to get on with model building was Pauling who produced a paper which was close but which had a serious error in the chemistry and so produced the wrong result but Crick and Watson knew that once he realised his mistake it might be weeks rather than months before he fixed it and found the correct answer.

There have now been many more historical and less anecdotal accounts of the search for the structure of DNA, as predicted by Bragg in his introduction including another book by James Watson, which I also have, entitled DNA and written in 2003 to accompany a British TV series on DNA marking the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery. Watson was very young, only twenty four, when he and Crick made their breakthrough and that possibly also affected the style of this book. At the time of writing he is still alive, the only person involved who is, and at ninety two lives in his native America.

A better view of the cover design by Alice Stevenson based on a design by Gavin Morris.

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