Galileo: Between Science, Science Studies and Science Fiction

San Diego, Calif., May 20, 2010 — Forging collaborations between the humanities and the sciences is an idea that would have appealed to Galileo Galilei. He was a product of a similar union, after all — he petitioned the Grand Duke of Tuscany to become the court “mathematician and philosopher,” since the concept of a "scientist" didn't exist before his time. 

Watch a the Webcast of the Galileo Symposium. Length: 2:10:25. [Windows Media and a broadband connection required.]
Following in that interdisciplinary tradition (and in tribute to the founder of modern science), an academic collective from the University of California, San Diego, held a recent symposium titled "Galileo: Between Science, Science Studies and Science Fiction" at the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

Coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope, the event was organized by Don Wayne, provost of Revelle College, and was co-sponsored by Calit2, Clarion Writers Workshop, Center for Research in Computing and the Arts (CRCA), UCSD Council of Provosts, UCSD Department of Literature, Division of Arts and Humanities, Division of Physical Sciences and Revelle College.

The life and times of Galileo influenced the work of each presenter at the symposium in profound if disparate ways. Award-winning science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson based his novel "Galileo's Dream" on the life of the famed scientist, combining historic research with science fiction tropes to show the impact and challenges of paradigm shifts and their human origins. Harvard University Professor of the History of Science, Mario Biagioli, has authored a number of scholarly works about Galileo and the consequences of his discoveries. UCSD Physics Professor Brian Keating's research into the early universe wouldn't have been possible without the refractor telescope that Galileo invented (a version of which Keating and his colleagues use to capture ultra-sensitive images of the afterglow of the Big Bang). 

"This is, to me, Galileo's big story," remarked Robinson. "What he started is still ongoing."

It’s an impressive accomplishment considering the obstacles that Galileo faced throughout his lifetime, from his  trial and punishment for accepting the Copernican theory of the universe to his struggle to maintain the patronage that would allow him to continue his studies of the solar system.

During Galileo's time, noted Robinson, "the death of a patron could point to the fall of someone's career." Biagioli explored this concept in more detail in his work on the scientist, "Galileo, Courtier," which Robinson consulted extensively for his novel. Quoting from Biagioli's work, Robinson remarked that for Galileo and his contemporaries, experiments, “like other forms of non-contentious claims, offered a way out of this deadlock of the patronage system."

"Experimentally produced matters of fact were more circumscribed claims about nature," Biagioli wrote. "Such matters were not only theologically safer, but by putting one's honor less on the line, their legitimization involved fewer risks. And then, because their acceptance was inherently linked to 'collective witnessing,' matters of fact were the perfect claim to be legitimized by a corporation of scientific practitioners, rather than by an individual patron. They represented a scientific practice which fit perfectly the new institutional situation of science, which in turn reflected the practitioner's emancipation from the deadlock of the patronage system."

Added Robinson: "The sense of difference in an earlier culture was something I began to understand better from the reading of Mario's work. But really patronage never went away. We still have patrons ... embodied in the money and power on this planet right now."

For his part, Biagioli noted that reading "Galileo's Dream" triggered some interesting thoughts about the relatio
Portrait of Galileo
The life and times of Galileo influenced the work of each presenter at the symposium in profound if disparate ways
nship between science fiction and his own field, science studies.

"It's the experience of seeing something you think you know fairly well, and then it appears in a different shape," he said.

"Studying history, especially early modern history where there isn't a lot of evidence, is a bit like doing paleontology, where you have a bone of a dinosaur here, another bone there, and suddenly you walk into a museum and there's a dinosaur skeleton standing in front of you,” he added. “A lot of it is based on speculative anatomy or composites.

"The difference is that in paleontology, there is an acknowledgement that this is the case. In history, there is no acknowledgement of the fact that most of historiography is all about filler. It's all about the narratives you create in order to connect these few points that you have."

As an author of fiction, Robinson must employ a similar strategy to piece together a story, Biagioli noted.

"In 'Galileo's Dream,'" he continued, "there are detailed descriptions that commonly you would not take to be factual, but actually they create an effect of a pretty interesting, informative, detailed historical narrative: Activities in Galileo's instrument-making workshop, interactions between his students and the members of his household, the description of his household."

On the contrary, scholars of historiography will "run all the counterfactual histories through their minds, pick the narrative that makes the most sense and then erase the fact that they have thought about all these counterfactual histories," Biagoli explained. "Stan uses a genre in which these potentialities are presented, whereas in history these potentialities are erased.”

Or, as Robinson writes in 'Galileo's Dream': "Reality is always partly a creation of the observing conscious... History is a tale of mangled potentiality"

Representing the physical sciences at the symposium was Professor Keating, who spoke about the scientific legacy of Galileo’s ground-breaking astronomical research. Keating and his colleagues have built a Galilean refracting telescope at South Pole to study Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, or the heat signature left over from Big Bang.

"Our telescope would not be as sensitive as it is without a Galilean design," noted Keating, adding that the radio telescope allows his team to see the far reaches of outer space using the same types of materials that Galileo himself used.

Explained Keating: "We now believe the mature universe to be 13.7 billion years old, and we know this with fantastic precision from studying the Cosmic Microwave Background. We believe that the galaxies and stars that we see today trace themselves to a primordial soup of materials, so we're seeing things farther and farther in time the more we look back in space. The theory is if we look back to where there's nothing obstructing our view, we can look back to the beginning of light."

Currently, astronomers can't see any further back than 380,000 years after the Big Bang "because that's where human vision stops," he added. "But that's not where time started."

Keating then borrowed from Biagioli's aforementioned paleontology analogy to illustrate the challenges to CMB scientists.

"Unlike paleontologists, we don't have dinosaur bones. We have one universe, and we hope to do statistical tests on that single universe. And that makes it challenging because we only really have things that come to us, whether its meteorites or light. CMB is light fossil that's come to us today."

Portions of the symposium were visually enhanced by high-resolution films depicting the four Jovian moons discovered by Galileo some 400 years ago. Produced by Sheldon Brown, professor of visual arts, director of CRCA and head of new media arts at Calit2, the films demonstrated "the effect of Galileo extending the human eye in this radical way that significantly displaced our role and our position in the universe,” according to Brown.

"With this event," he continued, "we're trying to look at how science fiction as a cultural undertaking gives us a way to think about cultural production in general, and how it can give us new rich relationships between the analytical traditions of the humanities, the creative practices of the arts and the inventive potentials of science and technology."

Brown's remarks echoed the sentiments of Provost Wayne, who called for a continued collaboration between CRCA, Clarion and faculty in the humanities and the sciences. Wayne also quoted a passage from Biagioli's scholarly essay titled "Post Disciplinary Liaisons: Science Studies and the Humanities.”

"Rather than seeking some kind of disciplinary kinship between the humanities and the sciences," wrote Biagioli, "we should keep an eye out for points of contact or shared problems ... in specific lines of work in some scientific and some humanistic disciplines for some period of time.

"It's not important to define how these emergent intersections should look and why collaborations should emerge around them, but rather to keep an eye out for them." 

by Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

Related Links

Center for Research in Computing and the Arts

Clarion Writers' Workshop

UCSD Department of Literature

UCSD Division of Arts and Humanities

UCSD Division of Physical Sciences

Revelle College