Faking Galileo

Massimo Mazzotti in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Gal1-243x366Art forgeries have long been the stuff of thrillers, with fake da Vincis or Vermeers fooling connoisseurs, roiling the art world, and moving millions of dollars. We don’t think of ancient books driving such grand forgery, intrigue, and schadenfreude. This is changing thanks in part to a clever forgery of Galileo’s landmark book Sidereus Nuncius, published in Venice in 1610. Arguably one of the most extraordinary scientific publications of all times, Sidereus Nuncius turned Galileo into the brightest new star of Western science. Four centuries later, a faked copy of this book has disarmed a generation of Galileo experts, and raised a host of intriguing questions about the social nature of scholarly authentication, the precariousness of truth, and the revelatory power of fakes.

The story begins in 1609, when Galileo was a professor at the University of Padua, then under the rule of the Republic of Venice. The 45-year-old Galileo was on his way to toppling Ptolemaic and Aristotelian conceits, revolutionizing the principles of motion, and redefining what physics was and meant. He was also struggling with financial problems, saddled with supporting a lover and three children, with the dowry for a sister’s marriage, and with a hapless brother. With little hope for a salary increase, he borrowed money, gave private lessons, and made instruments to sell.

In July 1609, he heard about a spyglass being made in Holland. Quickly, he figured out the requisite shape and combination of lenses needed to go from two or three orders of magnification to eight. Just one month later he presented his invention to the Senate of Venice as a new military technology; it would, he told the Senate, make it possible to spot enemy ships at sea a full two hours before a naked-eye observer. There was no such thing as our notion of a patent in those days, so Galileo needed to be strategic in order to benefit from his inventions and discoveries. To this end, he offered the telescope as a “gift” to the Senate. It worked. He was rewarded in the form of tenure and a doubling of his salary.

More here.