A Life of Galileo: What Brecht can teach us about the public ownership of science

by Alice Bell

The central tourist strip of Stratford-upon-Avon is not the sort of place you expect to find much Marxism. It's all a bit Ye Olde Costa Coffee, Anne Hathaway fudge, postcards, postcards, postcards and pink fridge magnets quoting As You Like It. The most subversive it gets is a pile of Terry Deary's Terrible Tudors in the front of Waterstone's (i.e. not very).

But Bertolt Brecht's A Life of Galileo is currently playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre, and Roxana Silbert's production of Mark Ravenhill's new translation puts the themes of class struggle front and centre.

On the surface, it's a play about the clash between science and religion, but the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts manages to miss the point by a heliocentric system or three when his review complains of a post-Dawkins boredom with such "hectoring atheism". The point of the play isn’t to privilege scientific thinking over others, it’s a critique of the way science can be captured by particular interests, a tale not of a hero but a complex, flawed man who wants to give science and its power over it to people and (crucially) improve science by listening to the people too.

The play is very much a product of the late 1940s, re-written by Brecht in 1947 in the still-blazing light of Hiroshima. The Galileo portrayed here is far from heroic. He's patronising, arrogant, manipulative and happy to sell his work to not only the church, but the military too, if it only gives him some time to quietly peruse the stars. (He's also extremely dismissive of women, but that might be more the play itself than a deliberately crafted negative character trait). Even the basis for the moment of technological determinism often cited as an expression of Brecht's Marxism in the play – the invention of the telescope – is the product of theft. The play may start with Galileo naked, but he makes no pretence at purity. As he exclaims to an old pupil in his final speech “Welcome to the gutter, brother in science”.

More to the point, the play is much more about the distribution of power than the doctrines of Catholicism. It’s the organised in organised religion that's of importance here, and how this may be all-too-often enacted to perpetuate social inequality. The church's role in the play is largely a symbol for hegemonic power, part of Brecht's preoccupation with science for the few compared to science for the many. Galileo wants to publish his work in vernacular Italian instead of Latin (the court philosophers laugh “the argument will lose brilliance”) and argues for the worth of the knowledge and skills of his working class collaborators. Later, after Galileo is threatened with torture and renounces his earlier work as heresy, one of these workers turns to the others to complain: “He never paid you properly for your work. You couldn’t buy a pair of trousers or publish your own work.” Galileo was exploitive too, part of the character’s fashioning as an anti-hero.

In many ways, the science is there for symbolic purposes too. Galileo's story is picked above any other case study of attempted rebellion not just because of his relationship with the church but because his work displaced the idea the Pope sat at the centre of the universe. The order of the heavens Galileo science speaks of is used to reflect upon orders on Earth, a metaphor which runs thickly throughout the play and was especially drawn out by the set design for the National Theatre's 2006 production. There is much talk of being unsettled and the people not knowing their "place", as this particular thread of the scientific revolution is used as an extended allegory for possible social ones.

There is, importantly, still the worry that scientists themselves will become too powerful and simply create new hierarchies based on their own claims to expertise. But I think Brecht’s keen to avoid the suggestion we replace religious authority with a technocratic one. This is why Galileo is shown up for exploiting his workers and we are continually told of the use of the worth of listening to people to make better science. When Galileo’s old pupil feels let down near the end of the play and exclaims angrily "Unhappy the land that has no heroes". Galileo replies humbly "No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes". Our scientist is an anti-hero not just for dramatic reasons or historical accuracy, but because Brecht wants to argue for collective rather than individual agency when it comes to understanding our world and working out how to make it better. The rallying cry of this play is to build a science and technology for the people, by the people, not simply defer to experts.

Perhaps befitting the astronomy-based talk of a topsy-turvy world, this new RSC production is a highly carnivalesque affair. At the start of the second half, a singing monk strips to reveal a fat suit over a tuxedo, in which he dances in along with the rest of the chorus, also in playful fancy dress, bathed in a pink light which runs through the set's blue graph paper backdrop. This street festival then turns into a ball, with Galileo in shiny shoes, his daughter in a gown to announce her engagement to a wealthy landowner and clerics in glittery animal masks. Throughout, the historical span of the play is connected with a chorus who set the scenes by sing into large microphones. Ian McDiarmid, playing Galileo, seems to dance around the stage as the boyish scientific excitement comes almost entirely from his hips.

One might be tempted to critique this as simply licensed carnival - moments of sanctioned freedom to distract you from everyday oppression - especially as you leave the theatre and return to central Stratford-upon-Avon, walking past the mosaic of Shakespeare’s face adorning the local HSBC on the way to the station, as well as the Anne Hathaway fudge, fridge magnets and collected works of Terry Deary. Or when you read that the RSC have announced a new partnership deal with BP. Indeed, the BP deal invites us to think about one of the plays key themes: the corrupting role of patronship. More relevent, perhaps, is the role of BP in university-based scientific research and or science education, which invite us to consider the ways in which the play's are still relevant. As Galileo bitterly declares in his closing speech: "Surely the purpose of science is to ease human hardship. If scientists follow the orders of those in power, if they store up knowledge for the sake of storing it up, then science will be crippled and your new machines will bring new forms of oppression.”

The RSC production ends with a nice touch: a young scientist throws an apple at a small child, telling her to learn to use her eyes. Apples have iconic status in the history of knowledge. Newton told the story of his apple not just because it’s a fruit that falls, but because it echoed Adam’s loss of knowledge in Eden; Newton had now got it this knowledge back. There’s a crucial difference, however, between whether Newton and other scientists felt such knowledge was now theirs, or whether it was seen as something for the whole of humankind. (Apparently Newton also thought he was no coincidence he shared a birthday with Christ, make of that what you will). We should expect scientists to share their work and be public accountable, but non-scientists should be proactive in the processes of opening it up too: stand up for the public funding of science and actively go forth and ask questions of professional researchers and their managers so you might be part of their research. Work with scientists and put them to work because other people already are. Check they’re building machines for liberation, not opression.

Go on. Be inspired by the possibilities. Bite into that apple.


Dr Alice Bell is a research fellow at the University of Sussex, focusing on public engagment with science. She also blogs about science policy for the Guardian and is New Left Project’s climate change editor.

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First published: 27 February, 2013

Category: Book Review, Culture, Science

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3 Comments on "A Life of Galileo: What Brecht can teach us about the public ownership of science"

By Sam, on 27 February 2013 - 09:16 |

Good article.

Not least for the significant points raised about the relationship of science and politics. Some of these points could not necessarily be considered to the full extent given the constraints of the review and I would like to pursue them here.

One of the main constraints might be the play itself. Alice describes ‘The Life of Galileo’ as a tale of a ‘flawed man who wants to give science and its power over it to people and (crucially) improve science by listening to the people too’. But by focusing attention away from Galileo’s own ‘intentions’ (whatever they were) we can better understand these themes.

1) Science for the people?
Obviously Galileo intended to write his works in vernacular Italian. But the democratic ethos was also written, rather more obliquely, into his general method as well. Galileo sought a form of explanation that anybody could learn. In the Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences Galileo (in the guise of the interlocutor Sagredo) pointedly asks ‘why should I not believe that [nature operates] in a manner which is exceedingly simple and rather obvious to everybody?’

What Edmund Husserl called this ‘Galilean attitude’ still holds today. This is counterintuitive not least because physics in particular is now way beyond the grasp of those of us not technically trained in the discipline. But it does hold. Not just in the sense that science remains interested in comparatively simple questions divorced from metaphysical speculation. But also in the sense that the theories it produces are supposed to be intelligible to everybody.

This was a radical step but rarely remarked upon. It was assumed before Galileo that you had to be a special kind of person to understand science—someone like Aristotle. To understand Aristotelian science you had to have a mind like Aristotle’s which enabled you to read and correctly interpret his works. This went away with Galileo and Newton. What they sought was, in Husserl’s words, an ‘identical, nonrelative truth of which everyone who can understand and use this method can convince himself’.

One of the consequences of this was that science became separated from its authors. No student of physics has to read Principia or have a knowledge of Newton’s alchemy to understand the theory of gravity. Equally only historians of science would bother reading Einstein’s 1905 papers or Watson and Crick’s articles on DNA.

This neatly encapsulates the democratic achievement of science. It doesn’t belong to anybody. It succeeds in doing this through a process of what Georges Canguilhem called ‘devalorization’—‘measurements substitute for appreciations, laws for habits, causality for hierarchy, and the objective for the subjective’. The English chemist, Henry Edward Armstrong, elaborated on this theme in his discussion of the teaching of the ‘scientific method’ back in 1903. Due to its objective mathematical procedures scientists can ‘assume the attitude of the investigator’ he wrote. Instead of being ‘merely told about things’ they can share the Eureka moment with the discoverer

2) Science for power?
At the same time it is very easy to gloss over the complex relationship of this new science to politics with eulogies about science for the people. It certainly was progressive for the reasons already mentioned. However the context for the Modern Scientific Revolution wasn’t a people’s revolution, but the emergence of a distinct class with distinct interests. Galilean science reflected these interests.

Alice makes a reference to this when she writes that Galileo was ‘happy to sell his work [to] the military, if it only gives him some time to quietly peruse the stars’. But I think this underestimates the extent of the relationship. It wasn’t that Galileo was seeking to find imperfect ways to pursue fundamentally politically disinterested inquiries (‘perusing the stars’). His very inquiries were ones that were deeply entangled with the economic, political and technological concerns of this emerging class.

So let’s take the example of the military whose interest in understanding ballistics ‘advanced in tandem with the work of the most prominent physicists’ (Boris Hessen). By the 16th Century the military were really concerned about their firearms, their unreliability, the lack of understanding surrounding the principles underlying it and so on. In order to get a handle on these technical problems one had to ask exactly the types of physical questions that not just Galileo was asking, but also people Torricelli, Newtyon, Bernoulli. Physical questions scientists were asking included the compression and expansion of gases (processes taking place within the firearm), the durability and resistance of machines (the durability of firearms), and projectiles and free falling bodies (ballistics). Galileo wasn’t simply an army mercenary, but he was someone rooted in a new political/economic/technological context with new constituencies to appeal to in his writings. On this, Galileo began his Mathematical Demonstrations by praising the Venetian army and pointing out that its arsenal had provided the basis for his scientific study.

Equally much of Newtonian mechanics was born out of the technological concerns of the naval merchants, not least ship navigation (determining longitude, the motion of tides etc). There is not enough space to discuss this in detail here but what these examples serve to do is to put flesh on the bones of Chomsky’s dictum that by the 17th Century the Europeans had turned violence, expansion and conquest into a ‘science’. This was in fact literally true.

None of this necessarily impounds upon the validity of Galilean science. All knowledge has material conditions of emergence and existence and Modern Science is no different. Reflecting on these conditions of emergence and existence separately from questions of the truth of the discourses they produce can enable us to get a better understanding of the political dimension of science, as well as a better normative handle on, as Hilary Rose put it, the question of ‘what kind of knowledge those of us who want to extend social justice in the world, want to have?’ Above all it serves to reiterate Alice’s point about the importance of the public’s active participation in science to steer it in more progressive ways.

By Alice, on 27 February 2013 - 17:07 |

good extra points - and, as you might have guessed I had that Rose interview in my mind when I saw the play…

On democratic ethos in method, yes, and that’s sort of nodded to a few times in the play. From a more 20th C philosophy of science point of view, it’s a bit naive though (e.g. Popper’s critique of Baconianism, and more elaborately Harry Collins’ take on expertise). Some feel that this means public participation isn’t possible - I disagree, if only because you can have participation on politics of science if not always in the construction, though I think the latter is possible too. It’s one of the areas where I think Rupert Sheldrake is interesting - wrong, but interesting (and the reasons why he’s wrong are also interesting) - in the way he calls for a reformation in science. Steve Fuller also talks of prot-science as in protestant, though I find slightly less to chew on there. A good Sheldrake interview here (and some other good ones on topic, though they are a mixed bunch) http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2009/01/02/how-to-think-about-science-part-1—-24-listen/

Very much agree that “His very inquiries were ones that were deeply entangled with the economic, political and technological concerns of this emerging class” - more true today (and in 1949) than then. It’s part of development of Big Science in many ways, and ways we’ve developed technosciecne, and had, even then. Was simplifying the already slight simplifications of the play.

By Alice, on 27 February 2013 - 17:52 |

p.s. This may seem weird connection to Brecht (though not necessarily weirder than Sheldrake, just culturally different), but this post on Big Society science encapsulates a lot of issues with public participation and modern sci http://blogs.royalsociety.org/in-verba/2010/11/02/science-and-the-big-society/

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