Galileo vs. Newton

By Sean Carroll | August 18, 2009 10:04 am

I didn’t get a chance to hear last year’s Caltech commencement speech by Robert Krulwich, and apparently I missed something good. This I gather from Chad Orzel’s Worldcon speech, which includes a great comparison due to Krulwich. I can’t really do any better than blatantly stealing three slides from Chad’s talk (although the whole thing is worth checking out).

The point of the comparison is to contrast two competing modes of scientific communication, as embodied by our two heroes. Here would be Sir Isaac:


Previously, back in Italy, Galileo had tried a different tack:


With, of course, notably different results:


Admittedly, this stretches the historical narrative a bit in the service of making a point. The divergence between Newton’s and Galileo’s career’s can’t be credited solely to their differences in publication styles. Galileo was a troublemaker by nature, while Newton was a good company man. (Although perhaps there is some correlation there with writing styles?)

But the punchline remains valid: Newtonian publication remains better for your career. And, implicitly, this hierarchy creates problems for the public understanding/acceptance of science. I would add that there’s certainly nothing wrong, all by itself, with scientific publications that are highly technical and inaccessible to a wider audience; those are always going to be a big part of the way science gets done. It’s not a moral failing to write jargon-filled manuscripts that are aimed at other scientists rather than at the general reader; in many cases, that’s simply the appropriate style for the work at hand. The failing is when that is the only kind of writing that is respected and rewarded. Encouraging a diverse portfolio of scientists and scientific publication would both increase the vibrancy of the field and lower the barriers between science and the rest of society.

Also, I would like a pony.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society
  • Ellipsis

    If the DoE took NASA’s lead and supported more popularization of its fundamental science, there would be a nice small industry for this like NASA has. I have yet to understand why they don’t.

  • Bjørn Østman

    But Newton (perhaps) remained a virgin his entire life, so there.

  • Eugene

    I would suggest writing a Newtonian publication, submit to a technical journal and then write a Galiliean followup to make money and buy Jags.

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  • jmchez

    By now, historians almost universally acknowledge that Galileo would not have faced the wrath of the inquisition if he had written in Latin an analysis for other learned men. It was the business of writing in Italian and trying to be witty by making fun of the Pope with the Simplicio character that got him into trouble.

    So, yes, the loquacious old man got humiliated while the cranky antisocial virgin (still so by the time he died at 86) was given a government job where he could have people executed; the only famous scientist ever to sign death warrants.

  • Phillip Helbig

    I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

  • Phillip Helbig

    Where is the evidence that Newton died a virgin? Yes, he never married, but that’s not the same thing (even in his time and place). Could it be that, like Gauß, he spent a lot of money on whores?

  • Stocc

    I, too, would like a pony.

  • Sean

    If you read Tom Levenson’s book, you’ll learn that Newton kept incredibly detailed records of every shilling he spent. Apparently none of the shillings went to sex and/or romance.

  • Sili

    Well, Gallileo was good Catholic (or ‘good’ at least, he had three illegitimate kids), while Newton was a non-Trinitarian.

    With a prediliction of getting forgerers executed.

    So, yeah … Iono.

  • Tony

    Interestingly enough, if you look at slide 2 of Chad’s talk, comparing science literacy

    The United States actually leads in most questions, except the ones pertaining to world & human origin. So apparently we actually do a relatively great job of teaching science, except when it contradicts religious dogma.

  • Koray

    Well, maybe his entertainment expenses were exempt from his own accounting rules.

    Or, he may have got it for free from ladies who were into high ranking gov’t officials. This ability to sign death warrants could seem sexy to some.

  • Romeo Vitelli

    Being a famous scientist doesn’t always come with fringe benefits. Nikola Tesla was a babe magnet too although he likely died a virgin as well (women scared him).

  • jmchez

    He verbally attacked the philosopher, John Locke, for inviting him to a party and trying to “get him involved with women”. He was also quoted as saying that dying a virgin was one of his great achievements.

    As far as being a nasty person goes, he was also quoted, after learning of Leibnitz’s death , as saying, ‘Ha, ha, I broke his heart”. Being a super genius does not guarantee that you’ll also be a decent human being.

  • Jonathan Vos Post

    It was one of the best talks on Science for the public that I ever heard from anyone, anywhere. Caltech students and their families, staff, and faculty were there in force, and very pleased. Were you on travel, giving a paper or something? Thanks for giving a hotlink to a YouTube, which was done by Caltech within a couple of days of Commencement. The only talk ever given by a Caltech alumnus (alumna, actually) was also delightful, but only funny to those who took Physics at Caltech. Krulwich applied his own method, emphasizing Narrative, weaving in Pop culture, using humor, and wonderfully paced. Yes, Newton probably died a virgin — so that he would not lose his magical powers as an alchemist (some scholars believe). He was one of the top 10 Bible scholars in his lifetime, and considered his analysis of the Book of Revelations on a par with his Opticks, Universal Gravitation, and Fluxions.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    While I can’t claim to be any sort of brilliant stylist myself, I like to think I can recognize the literary gift in others. With this ability, sadly, comes the recognition of utter crap when I see it, too. I’ve been reading a lot of review articles lately, out of necessity. Ah, the review: As often written by the seasoned expert as by the callow pre-doc upon whom the task is foisted in the guise a privilege. Even if I knew nothing about the author, the prose would still be a dead giveaway. Yes, jargon can be appropriate, and a skillful command of it conveys erudition. But it CANNOT substitute for the ability to write at all, and it’s remarkable how many people seem to think hosing the reader with it can somehow compensate. For the love of all that is decent, would someone please force these pitiless scribblers to take a writing course? My frickin’ eyes are bleeding.

  • Claire C Smith

    “Also, I would like a pony”

    But Sean, wouldn’t we all<- like a pony? (Besides, I would love to keep dung beetles)

    Brilliant post!


  • here

    Newton’s letter on light and colours in the Royal Society’s Phil. Trans. is quite accessible and convincing. Newton walks the reader through the progression of his thinking and the results of experiments which led him to his conclusions.

    It’s available at

  • Serge

    On an unrelated note -why don’t you add twitter button to blog, like reddit, digg etc ?

  • Ian

    Didn’t Galileo also have problems proving stellar parallax?

  • Patrick

    I find the evidence presented in your study with its sample size of two both compelling and statistically significant.

  • Plato

    It appears that Galileo was using Plato’s dialogue as a “method of transference of information” to his readers. Like a plot of a good story “you create your characters” and then conceptually hope the transference embodies all that y0u would like passed on.

    Newton was very picky about releasing any information until it was complete. Plus, he had many characterization problems of his own, so he was secular in his relations. He just wanted the facts, while he dabbled in Chymistry and its psychological benefits to change that.:) Bogus or not, Newton cared about his conduct

    Hey nice editing comment feature here.

  • Thomas Larsson

    This summer I took my family for a vacation in London, and we visited Greenwich (and I learned that it is pronounced Grenich). I also learned that in 1712 Newton and Edmond Halley published a preliminary version of royal astronomer John Flamsteed’s Historia Coelestis Britannica without crediting the author. So apart from being in constant conflict with Hooke, Newton evidently managed to seriously piss off Flamsteed.

    Besides, Erdös remained a virgin, and that did not reduce his (mathematical) fertility.

  • federico

    I wonder if Darwin thought about these two stiles. To stay a virgin would go against evolution, to face the church et al was bad enough, unless you are old enough not to care anymore.

  • Kaleberg

    One big difference was that England was a Protestant country under a Protestant king. That made a huge difference in what one could publish. Given that the scientific revolution has only happened once, it is worth noting the political, religious and cultural background necessary for its long term success.

    Another big difference is that reading Galileo’s dialog was not sufficient for figuring out how to do any useful calculations. It was a philosophical work. Newton’s book was designed so that those who could follow it could duplicate his work, and use it for predicting orbits, artillery ranges and so on. In many ways it was a more radical work, since Galileo did not address causes the way Newton did. Galileo’s model of the solar system was perfectly compatible with active divine intervention. Newton argued that the cause of planetary motion was independent of any divine intervention, save as the initial creator of the system and the laws of physics themselves. In fact, it was this radicalism that led Newton to caution, and led to repeated references to God as the clockmaker, to provide the deity with a suitable role. Consider, once the clock is built, it operates just fine without a clockmaker. In a Catholic country, that argument might be considered blasphemous.

  • jondiced

    Orwell would definitely agree that there’s a relationship between being a company man, and writing badly. (I love this essay)

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  • Alex

    “One big difference was that England was a Protestant country under a Protestant king.”

    Actually, England (along with the rest of the British Isles) was ruled by James II (numeral applies only in England, different for other parts of the British Isles), a Catholic, when Newton published the Principia. However, you are right to say that the country was Protestant though, as a year after the publication of the Principia, the Protestant William of Orange was called upon to overthrow James. He duly obliged in the “bloodless” (wasn’t at all) Glorious Revolution, and jointly ruled with his wife as William III and Mary II (English numerals again). Shortly after, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 was passed, which has had an massive effect not just on English history, but also of places historically associated with England, particularly the US, where it was a source of inspiration for the US Bill of Rights.

    So although this perhaps seems like a very pedantic comment, particularly as James didn’t reign for very long, this point isn’t trivial to me, as it is a massive moment in my country’s (the UK) history, and the pedantic details then come naturally from that.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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