The Rebellious and Revolutionary Life of Galileo, Illustrated

In 1564, Galileo Galilei was born into a world with no clocks, telescopes, or microscopes — a world that was believed to be the center of the universe, orbited by the sun and the moon and the stars. By the time he died seventy-seven years later, his ideas had planted the seed for the most significant scientific revolution in human history. In addition to his most notorious astronomical discoveries, which challenged centuries of religious dogma by dethroning Earth as the center of the universe and nearly cost him his life, Galileo also invented modern timekeeping, created the microscope, inspired Shakespeare, and even provided a metaphorical model for understanding how culture evolves.

In *I, Galileo* (public library), writer and artist Bonnie Christensen — who also gave us the marvelous illustrated story of Nellie Bly — chronicles the life of the great Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer, and philosopher, adding to both the finest picture-book biographies of cultural icons and the best children’s books celebrating science.

The story, quite possibly inspired by Ralph Steadman’s superb I, Leonardo, is told as a first-person autobiography narrated by Galileo himself. Christensen’s beautiful illustrations pay homage to the aesthetic sensibility of Galileo’s era, partway between the stained glass of European cathedrals and the artistic style of the Old Masters.

Galileo on Critical Thinking and the Folly of Believing Our Preconceptions

In the foreword to the modern edition of this intellectual masterwork, Albert Einstein calls it “a mine of information for anyone interested in the cultural history of the Western world and its influence upon economic and political development,” and writes:

A man is here revealed who possesses the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking against the host of those who, relying on the ignorance of the people and the indolence of the teachers in priest’s and scholar’s garb, maintain and defend their positions of authority. His unusual literary gift enables him to address the educated men of his age in such clear and impressive language as to overcome the anthropocentric and mythical thinking of his contemporaries.

Indeed, nearly half a millennium before Carl Sagan crafted his Baloney Detection Kit, Galileo established himself as humanity’s premier nonsense-buster and made it his chief mission to counter ignorance and indolence with critical thinking — something crisply articulated in the words of one of the book’s fictional protagonists:

In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries.

Galileo on Why We Read and How Books Give Us Superhuman Powers

books why_we_read

Why do we read? “A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. For Kafka, reading was “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny. “Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy,” E.B. White wrote in contemplating the future of reading in 1951. “A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan asserted in his iconic Cosmos series, admiring the “funny dark squiggles” that have the uncanny power to transport us, across time and space, into the mind of another.

Nearly half a millennium earlier, another cosmic sage — Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564–January 8, 1642), perhaps humanity’s greatest science-crusader and illuminator of the universe — made a strikingly similar observation, a parallel that speaks to the abiding allure of reading as our sole conduit to superhuman powers like time travel and telepathy.

With what admiration the reading of excellent poets fills anyone who attentively studies the invention and interpretation of concepts! And what shall I say of architecture? What of the art of navigation?

But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!

Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of mankind.

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