A Heavenless Sky

With next year marking the 450th anniversary of Galileo’s birth, Adam Gopnik celebrates the astronomer’s genius:

He took the competitive, empirical drive with which Florentine painters had been looking at the world and used it to look at the night sky. The intellectual practices of doubting authority and trying out experiments happened on lutes and with tempera on gesso before they turned toward the stars. You had only to study the previous two centuries of Florentine drawing, from the rocky pillars of Masaccio to the twisting perfection of Michelangelo, to see how knowledge grew through a contest in observation. As the physicist and historian of science Mark Peterson points out, the young Galileo used his newly acquired skills as a geometer to lecture on the architecture of Hell as Dante had imagined it, grasping the hidden truth of “scaling up”: an Inferno that big couldn’t be built on classical engineering principles. But the painters and poets could look at the world, safely, through the lens of religious subjects; Galileo, looking through his lens, saw the religious non-subject. They looked at people and saw angels; he looked at the heavens, and didn’t.