Monday, January 27, 2014

The Starry Messenger takes just two months to arrive

I very much enjoyed Nicholas Schmidle's recent New Yorker article about a forged copy of Sidereus Nuncius ("Starry Messenger"), the groundbreaking treatise in which Galileo described the craters of the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, and the new stars that he had discovered with his telescope.

(And not only because my post about Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter, as portrayed in Brecht's Life of Galileo, is in my top 5 most-read posts of all time. Or because Galileo was the first person to look at the Pleiades through a telescope.)

Mainly, I enjoyed the article for its account of shady dealings in the rare-book world, complete with a talented but completely unscrupulous con man with a terrific Italian name (Marino Massimo De Caro).

But also, I was intrigued to learn the publication history of Sidereus Nuncius. Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in early January 1610, and two months later, he had written up his observations in Latin, found a publisher, had the book typeset, commissioned copperplate etchings as illustrations, reviewed the proof copies, and published the book. Two months to publish a book that would change the course of science! Granted, Sidereus Nuncius is only 60 pages long... but still.

People say that culture moves much faster in the digital age than it ever did before; we have this idea that, in the olden days, writers were more careful and thoughtful than they are now. And, sure, in the 21st century you can publish something instantaneously on a blog and have it available to the entire world, rather than dealing with the slower processes (production and distribution) of print media.

However, for anything to get published in a scientific journal these days, it must go through a lengthy peer-review process. And even if you're self-publishing, two months is an awfully quick turn-around time to write, illustrate, proofread, and publish a book. In some ways, then, the culture seems slower than it was in Galileo's time. It's the same thing I was writing about in my Theater Pub column earlier this month: we think it was fine for Shakespeare to write and produce two plays a year, but there's an expectation that modern playwrights will spend years workshopping a single play. And, we think it was fine for Galileo to publish his scientific observations two months after he made them (without any peer review), but modern scientists would never get away with having so little data.

Image: the pages of Sidereus Nuncius that depict Galileo's drawings of Orion and the Pleiades, cropped from the original image at the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology. So cool! I've just adapted it as my Facebook and Twitter cover photo.

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