Galileo, Reconsidered

The first biography of Galileo Galilei resurfaces and offers a new theory as to why the astronomer was put on trial

Galileo (Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis)

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Mario Biagioli, a Harvard historian of science, says that perhaps the most exciting thing about Wilding's findings is the indication of England's early interest in Galileo. Biagioli sees the instant fascination with Galileo as an early sign of progressive thinking within the scientific revolution. "In a sense, the myth of Galileo derives from his early works and biographies—they're part of his canonization," he says. At this time, England's fledgling Royal Society, a scientific organization that Salusbury tried in vain to join, was looking to establish its patron saints, Biagioli explains, and Galileo seemed to fit the bill. Salusbury's decision to write a biography of Galileo may reflect the desire to reach across borders and solidify science as a worldwide affair.

But if there was so much interest in Galileo, why did the Salusbury biography ever disappear in the first place? Why didn't anybody make copies of the single remaining manuscript? Findlen suggests that, at some point, interest in Galileo waned. Maybe it was the canonization of English scientists such as Francis Bacon, or perhaps the availability of later Galilean biographies, but "you have to conclude that at some point, [the biography] became obscured." Then missing. Then lost. Then finally found again.

But some scholars worry that the book may disappear again. In 2006, Sotheby's sold it for £150,000 to an anonymous private collector. In his last encounter with the biography, Wilding slipped a note inside the cover asking that its new owner contact him so that it might be studied further. Ultimately, he'd like to see it wind up in a museum.

"It would be sad if things ended here, if it was lost again and kept in a private library for another 300 years," Wilding says. But he's hopeful that the more people talk about the biography, the more it comes up in public and scholarly discussions, the more likely it will be that the new owner will release the book to the public domain. "There does seem to be something of a curse on it," Wilding says. "I suppose I should start fearing fires and plagues at this point."


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