It’s never good to bet against science: Astrophysicist Mario Livio

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on: May 04, 2020

Mario Livio maps the parallels between the trend of science denial during the time of Galileo Galilei and the world today

Galileo Galilei died in 1642. Since then, hundreds of books have been written on the Father of Modern Sciences. Even now, the life and works of the rebel scientist continues to inspire scientists and commoners alike.


In Galileo and the Science Deniers , Mario Livio, well-known astrophysicist, popular speaker and author of best-sellers such as The Golden Ratio and Brilliant Blunders , offers a unique perspective on the great scientist’s life, linking it to the culture and tradition of science denial. BusinessLine speaks to Livio about the book, and to know more about what’s to be done to foster an environment of scientific temper in society, at a time when pseudoscience and anti-science movements gain popularity even in advanced economies and among educated masses. Edited excerpts:

Another book on the Father of Modern Sciences. Were you confident that you’d find readers?

Of course, one can never be absolutely sure that there will be readers. I did think, however, that an accessible book about one of the most fascinating persons in history, and a story which has important parallels with today, will interest many readers.

What’s the most important takeaway scientists today can derive from Galileo’s life and work?

The most important lesson is that in order to have an impact, scientists need to make their discoveries — and the significance of those discoveries — understandable by all educated people. Furthermore, since many studies show that if adults are convinced of something, it is very difficult to change their opinions, scientists need to participate more in the education of young children.

You say Galileo is one of the inventors of “scientific method”...

The ancient Greeks thought that to understand natural phenomena, all we need to do is to think about them. Galileo initiated a revolution by stating that the only way to establish facts about the world, and to understand the phenomena within it, is through experiments, observations, and reasoning based on the results of those experiments and observations. For example, when he wanted to study free-fall, he realised that the time-measuring devices existing at the time were not sufficiently precise to measure small differences in the times of arrival of different free-falling objects. He therefore found a way to “dilute” gravity by rolling balls down inclined planes, thereby slowing down the motion. He was also the first to clearly declare that the universe “is written in the language of mathematics,” thereby opening the door for the formulation of the “laws of nature.”

The Church, which inquisitioned Galileo, was a big hindrance to the development of science then. Have religious institutions changed over time?

The Catholic Church in itself was not a hindrance. There were important mathematicians and scientists who worked at the Catholic Roman College. The problem was with some theologians, who insisted on literal interpretation of Scripture. Galileo himself never saw his battle as one between science and religion. His chief argument was simply that the Bible was not written as a science book, but rather for “salvation”. He therefore argued that when there is an apparent conflict between science and literal interpretations of the Bible , the interpretation has to be changed. The same remains true today. As long as the conclusions of science concerning physical reality are accepted, with no religious denouncing of provable facts, there is no conflict between the two realms.

How did Galileo look at the relationship between philosophy and science?

At Galileo’s time “philosophy” referred to all the natural sciences. He, in fact, insisted that the title of “Philosopher” would be added to his title of “Mathematician”. Today, science and philosophy are regarded as distinct fields. Even philosophers of science today are rarely active research scientists.

In Chapter 14 of your book Giovanni Pieroni, a miliatry engineer and a friend of Galileo, who tried unsuccessfully to publish the The Dialogo in Prague, says: “..there reigns a determined resolution to exterminate all novelties, especially in science”. Science faces many hurdles even today...

There are some differences between Pieroni’s complaint and today’s science denial. Pieroni lamented the fact that the intellectual outlook of many people at that time was still predominantly medieval — that everything worth knowing was already known. The Scientific Revolution (in which Galileo was a major player) changed that. Science denial today is fed primarily by political conservatism, economic considerations, and to a lesser extent religiosity.

How do you compare Einstein with Galileo?

Galileo, Newton, and Einstein may be the three most prominent scientists in history. In Chapter 17 of the book, I compare Galileo’s and Einstein’s ideas on science and religion. They both fought for intellectual freedom. Einstein did not believe, however, in a God that interferes in the course of events, or in a personal God.

You’re saying that Galileo “comfortably inhabited both worlds, the scientific and the humanistic..”

Galileo had great interest in literature, painting, and music. He was an accomplished lute player, he gave lectures on Dante’s Inferno , he wrote an essay comparing poets Ariosto and Tasso, and he studied drawing. He used his drawing skills in describing and interpreting his observations of the Moon. He wrote an essay comparing painting and sculpture, and painters Cigoli and Gentileschi were his friends.

What are some of the most interesting facets of Galileo’s character you’ve come across while researching for the book?

The most exciting fact into which I have put an enormous amount of research, was trying to find the true origin of Galileo’s most famous motto: E Pur is Muove (And Yet It Moves), referring to the Earth. This has become a symbol of intellectual defiance: In spite of what you may think — these are the facts! I am publishing the results of this research in a short article, which appears in Scientific American (online) on May 5, 2020.

Today, science denial is a fashion. From Donald Trump to Narendra Modi, even world leaders are not great fans of scientific thinking. In this context, how do you look at the future of science and scientific research in the world?

We indeed encounter science denial today on many fronts. From the denial of the reality of climate change, through people who refuse to vaccinate their children, and up to the initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. The fact that this denial characterises also people at the highest positions is not only disturbing, it is alarming. One of the lessons from Galileo is that it is never a good idea to bet against science. To do so when the future of life on Earth is at stake is absolutely insane.

You have observed the world of science and its applications all these years. What are your suggestions for building a scientifically charged society?

The key is education. Not everybody needs to be a scientist, but everybody needs to have an appreciation of science and of how it self-corrects. The education system needs to emphasise curiosity. Curiosity was found to be an absolutely necessary ingredient for creativity.

Published on May 04, 2020
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