Before Galileo

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I must admit I was expecting more from this book by John Freely, a professor of physics at Bosphorous University in Istanbul. It is weighed down by such a huge quantity of superfluous biographical material that his argument often gets lost.

In a discussion of the Muslim conquest of Spain, for example, we learn that Musa conquered Seville, that Abd al-Rahman erected a Great Mosque in Cordoba, and that Hisham II “was a puppet in the hands of his vizier al-Mansur.” All very nice, but completely irrelevant to the important point at hand, which is the development of philosophy and medical research during the period from 750-1200AD.

This continues through the book, and reaches elephantine proportions when the biographical record gets much stronger. In the chapter on the great astronomer Copernicus we get page after page of biographical detail including the proceedings of a meeting in 1504 that “refused to make a pledge of loyalty to King Alexander, grandson of Wladyslaw II Jagiello, who had become Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1492 and succeeded his childless elder brother John I Albert, as king of Poland in 1501, reuniting the two states.” Great if we are studying Polish political history, but worse than useless in a book about the birth of modern science.

While the book does include a bibliography, there are no references, so tracing the origin of Freely’s thoughts is impossible. For example, on page 77, we learn that numerals “including the all-important zero, may have been introduced in India from Greek sources in Alexandria and were further developed in the Arab world before taking their present form in late medieval Europe.”

I have an acquaintance from India who is quite proud of the “fact” that zero originated there, but I have no way of assessing Freely’s claim that this may not be true in the absence of a reference for this very important matter.

What Freely does do well is trace “the complicated development of the scientific method during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with its debates on the complex relation of philosophical principles, empirical observations, directed experiments, and mathematical theories, which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would sweep away the ancient Aristotelian system in the emergence of modern science.”

There is lots to learn from this book, including the astronomical work of Gerbert d’Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II in 999, but it would have been much more effective at a considerably shorter length.

There are three typos in the book: Pg. 141: “that that” should be “that”; pg. 225: “planet” not “plant”; Pg. 278: the year should read 1612, not 1621.

Before Galileo: The Birth of Modern Science in Medieval Europe (348 pages) is $28.95 from Overlook Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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