Sunday, May 24, 2009

Leben des Galilei

"Unhappy the land that needs a hero"
(Bertold Brecht - Life of Galileo)

Back in California, I just went to an outdoor performance of Brecht's "Life of Galileo" in the campus olive grove. Brecht's play is a complex take on the delicate mechanisms of scientific research and its difficult relation to the power structures and economic interests that surround the academic environment.

Brecht's Galileo is a profoundly disillusioned character. Far from being the uncompromising hero of principles, he compromises with just about anything, starting from his clever reselling to the Venetian military of the Dutch telescope passed off as his own invention, to his final recanting of Copernican theory in front of the Inquisition under threat of torture. He wants to be able to continue doing his work, and in the name of that he is willing to sacrifice everything, from moral integrity to scruples, to alliances and friendships. Even his daughter's life he carelessly destroys without paying so much attention to it. Brecht's Galileo is the portrait of a real scientist, one who has to find a way to continue doing his work in a difficult environment. His initial tirade about the time wasted in teaching duties as opposed to time dedicated to research cannot help but resonate with anybody who holds an academic position nowadays. Similarly, his quest for funds sounds all too familiar to all those who keep spending a good part of their time writing grant proposals. I am sure this particular audience could not help thinking DoD and Darpa when watching the scene of the telescope scam and the importance of its "military applications" and the resulting generous increase of funds granted to Galileo by his Venetian employers. The accompanying discussion on academic freedom also sounds so very familiar: Brecht knew full well what he was writing about and that wasn't 17th century Italy.

Galileo moves on to wherever he thinks he will be best able to carry out his work, from the republic of Venice to the Medici court of Florence. So do we, move on, in search of a place that offers better working conditions. That's what scientists do, shed all notions of belonging to a place and only belonging to one's work and following it around wherever it appears to find its most fertile ground. Not always this leads to the best decision: Galileo's moving to Florence leaves him more dangerously exposed to the power of the church than at the time when he was a citizen of the Venetian republic. His hope that the scholars of the Medici court will embrace his work is met by a cold and skeptic rebuttal, where invoking the authority of Aristotle the respected council of the court refuses to do as much as to look at the satellites of Jupiter through the telescope. The fortunes of Galileo's work, in Brecht's clever and moving narrative, alternate: after initially gaining the approval of the Vatican academy, the decision of the Inquisition to put the works of Copernicus in the list of indicted books turns the fortunes once again and Galileo is silenced for years. When finally Cardinal Barberini is elected pope, the scientist hopes to find a sympathetic ear in the science inclined new head of the church, only to find himself on the wrong side once again and threatened by the inquisition.

The riddle of the Brecht play is the final recantation of Galileo: its meaning, its impact, its long term consequences. It is clear that, by the time when Galileo faces the choice between remaining faithful to his ideas and facing torture and possibly death at the hands of the Inquisition or continuing to live, silenced and under house arrest, after repudiating the very essence of his work, Galileo has already reached a stage of profound disillusionment towards other human beings, towards people like the new pope Barberini, whom he had seriously trusted would be supportive of his work. He has learned the hard way that nobody is to be trusted and that there are no ideals and nothing worthy of fighting for. At that point, the perspective of a quiet and isolated life, alone with his work, appears perhaps like a more reasonable outcome than the heroic gesture in defense of something he no longer believes worth defending. There are actually many different ways of reading the ending of Brecht's play and the anti-heroic role of Galileo in his decision to recant. This is only one possible interpretation, but one that projected in the context of the everyday practice of science still makes sense. True, nowadays none of us risks ending up like Giordano Bruno: even the Vatican has extinguished its taste for the smell of burned flesh. However, on a smaller but still significant scale, we do experience the sense of loss of trust in people, institutions, environments whom we had grown used to imagine as supportive, only to experience that support being withdrawn at the most crucial times. So Brecht's Galileo is a very relevant figure in portraying the psychological workings of the everyday practice of science, much more than as a rendering of the historic figure.