Titans Televised

Two great scientists who could—theoretically—have taught at Harvard will be celebrated on television this fall with help from Harvard experts. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) both used systematic observation to overturn long-settled dogmas about how nature works. Yet truth needs not only discovery, but marketing. Franklin's formidable social and diplomatic skills allowed him to midwife not only scientific breakthroughs, but a new nation. In contrast, Galileo—who lacked Franklin's tact and salesmanship and was born before the Enlightenment in an Italy where the Vatican wielded enormous power—spent his last eight years under house arrest. Now two Public Broadcasting System programs dramatize the men's personal and intellectual lives, as scripted from their own words. Nova broadcasts "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens," starring Simon Callow, on October 29; the three-hour Benjamin Franklin miniseries, starring Richard Easton, airs November 19 and 20.

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Simon Callow as Galileo

Public Broadcasting System

The Franklin series, in fact, was triggered by an article in this magazine, written by Baird research professor of science Dudley Herschbach (see "Ben Franklin's 'Scientific Amusements,'" November-December 1995, page 36). Yale historian Claude-Ann Lopez, a special consultant on the Franklin papers there, saw the article and convened a meeting with Herschbach and her old friend I Bernard Cohen, Thomas professor of the history of science emeritus, an eminent Franklin scholar who has published an edition of Franklin's letters on electricity. (In the eighteenth century, letters sometimes took the place of scholarly journals, and Franklin styled himself a "natural philosopher" rather than a scientist.) Several years later, Lopez finally located a television production team, Middlemarch Films, to create the series. On November 4, the producers will speak in the "Film in History/Film as History" series at Harvard's Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. In addition to Herschbach and Cohen, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson '74 and historians Pauline Maier '60, Ph.D. '68, Edmund Morgan '37, Ph.D. '42, and Gordon Wood, Ph.D. '64, all appear on-screen.

Franklin had his own ties to the University, as the first person upon whom Harvard conferred an honorary degree: a master's, in 1753—no mean feat for a man with only two years of formal education. But Franklin was a polymath and genius: "Without a doubt the greatest scientist of the eighteenth century,' says Herschbach. Franklin won his century's highest scientific honor, the Copley Medal, equivalent to today's Nobel Prize.

The breathtaking range of Franklin's accomplishments—starting Phildelphia's first hospital, lending library, and college (now the University of Pennsylvania); inventing the efficient Franklin stove, a simplified clock, the lightning rod, and a musical instrument, the glass armonica; launching a postal service, becoming a wealthy printer and bestselling author; writing the first great book of American literature, his Autobiography; plumbing the secrets of electricity, discovering and charting the Gulf Stream; and securing the decisive support of the French in the Revolutionary War, to name a few—reflect the fact that he apparently did not rest between tasks. His voracious curiosity about the world drove his mind to ceaseless activity. Franklin is also the only Founding Father in an athletic hall of fame: an avid swimmer, he taught himself the skill from a French book.

Franklin's stature in the eighteenth century was comparable to Einstein's in the twentieth, according to Herschbach. Before his discoveries, lightning was widely considered to be a manifestation of the powers of darkness. "In Franklin's day, electricity was more of a mystery than gravity was in Newton's era. You have to be very impressed," Herschbach says. "The way he pursued science was totally modern, but at that time, it was the exception."

 

If Franklin was almost ideally suited to his century, Galileo was sometimes strikingly at odds with his own. He was a man ahead of his time, perhaps the "one single person who could be said to have created modern science," according to the Nova program. Despite his famous conflict with the Inquisition, Galileo was a faithful Catholic who thought the Bible was the true word of God—just not a very good astronomy text. He enrolled his daughter Virginia, born outside of marriage, in a convent when she was 13. Their loving correspondence, which continued until her death at 33, is a theme of the television narrative and takes its cues from the book Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel (see "Suor Maria Celeste," November-December 1999, page 60).

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Richard Easton plays Benjamin Franklin.

Public Broadcasting System

When she took her vows at 16, Virginia chose the name Maria Celeste, apparently to honor her father's fascination with the stars. Although Galileo's letters to her are lost, the 124 surviving letters from Maria Celeste portray a humble, devoted daughter who served her father in many ways and may even have copied the final (now missing) manuscript of his magnum opus, Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World.

Her modest nature was certainly no patrimony. After teaching himself to grind lenses, Galileo assembled a telescope powerful enough to probe the heavens, and within a week had discovered the first new astronomical bodies since ancient times—four moons of Jupiter. Within two months he had published his findings in a book. "God pleased to make me the first observer of an admirable thing kept hidden all these ages," he wrote. "He was very cocky and couldn't resist making fools of people, " says Owen Gingerich, research professor of astronomy and of the history of science, who appears in the Nova program. "He made enemies."

Of course, the most consequential enemies he made were in the Vatican. Although Copernicus had advanced his heliocentric model of the solar system in 1530, "there was no observational evidence that the earth moved" until Galileo's telescopy, says Gingerich. Galileo's great Dialogue, which argues both the earth-centered and heliocentric positions, but clearly demolishes the former, included a straw man named Simplicio who was unfortunately taken as a mockery of Pope Urban VIII. The Holy See banned the book for 200 years.

Word got out anyway. The Dialogue was published in an original edition of 1,000 copies (twice the size of Newton's Principia, a half-century later), which circulated before—and after—the Inquisition proscribed it. According to Gingerich, it was "the book that won the war." Not until 1992 did a papal commission find that mistakes were made in the handling of the Galileo affair. Three and a half centuries after the Catholic Church branded Galileo a heretic, Pope John Paul II used the astronomer's own words to declare that "Faith should never conflict with reason."

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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