Amongst the many, or few, reasons that young people take on the challenge of university, work or technical education is a belief we take for granted: that year on year, our lives will get better. On a grand scale, we call this ‘Progress’. We believe that Progress – such as scientific research to save our planet, yet more ‘innovative’ readings of Hamlet, and radical automation – is inevitable.
Let’s turn this on its head: if it were inevitable, surely, we would not worry about working so hard at it? This is precisely why knowledge, the fruit, and driver of Progress is valuable. Because we discover it by aiming at the imprecise, the hard-to-find. Scarcity, even here, is value. Knowledge is desirable not just because it improves our lives, but because the success of discovery is like an addictive drug – the joy and value of Progress lies in process, too.
In short, all the research undertaken through hypothesis, trial and error, and brute force is a constant attempt at reaching what generations before us have deemed desirable. We start from the frailest of foundations and unearth the most durable truths.
Rarely have our foundations seemed so frail as the present day: a time when we are most in need of innovation, and faith in the deftness of humanity, we seem to be at a loose end. When faced with calls for a Green New Deal to stop the climate emergency, we dare not contemplate the complete socio-industrial revolution required for it to succeed, from transforming our economy to revolutionising the minutiae of our daily lives. We try to make the United Nations work, yet we will never dare to question a bizarre, self-interested Security Council that dictates affairs as if it were still 1946. A world order that has seemed stable for over 70 years is now feeling the consequences.
At this stage we have a six-pointer to play – away from home. We need to convince ourselves that behind all progress is a utopia, triggered by the glint of a hint towards new possibilities: the desire to attack the imprecise with courage because it is worth a struggle. It is knowledge that is worth protecting for the sake of everyone, not just partisan interests – we aim for knowledge that has a life beyond policy briefings. Such knowledge, however, can make itself dangerous, because it threatens our status quo. It crosses borders, reminds the powerful of how powerless they risk becoming, and destroys illusions of supremacy.
There is one man that, more than ever, we can invoke when fear of the new creeps around the corner. Galileo Galilei, whose name adorns satellites, secondary schools, his hometown Pisan airport, and graces some of the greatest scientific writing – and writing, full stop – is our man. He saw that discovery was worth more than professional honour, or even putting bread on the table, and so he became discovery’s greatest huntsman. He recognised the personal contradictions involved in perilous work, such as questioning the cosmological status quo imposed by the most powerful institution in the world at the time – the Catholic Church. He realised that even if Padua gave him the freedom to research, he needed the power and money of Florence’s Medici to create a stir and proclaim heliocentrism, at the risk of persecution. He freely crossed both private and state borders, putting himself at the service of the fishmongers, housekeepers, and merchants who could question the world for themselves with a simple instrument: the telescope.
With that, too, Galileo saw value beyond the personal and political. The telescope first came from the streets of Holland, and he took it, improved it, gave it a wondrous importance unbeknownst to those using it to chart faster shipping routes. He reproduced the telescope, giving a new importance to its physicality: the lens grinders who built it became as crucial as the eye behind it. The man who knows how it works is the safeguard of its fragility. The work of craftsmen shows us what we need to achieve, whilst the scientists bring to light what we can afford to be. It is this collective effort that constitutes true discovery. Galileo took what he saw with his own eyes, and, at the risk of his life, committed it to paper. That too – his Discorsi – ran a perilous journey across the European borders to Holland, where, fittingly, its stimulus the telescope was born.
All this history is also fruit for the stage. Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo explores the relevance of Galileo’s remarkable attempts at revolution. It is Brecht’s mythology of Galileo that counts almost as much as the man himself, because it provides us with an icon to push forward our own frontiers, the same way John Milton wrote into Paradise Lost, the product of his own encounter with Galileo. But we must not forget that Brecht’s depiction of the revolutionary consequences of his work depends on showing the ordinariness of his attempt: a profoundly defeated man replete with flaws demonstrates that it is conviction, often exchanged for madness, that counts. His character did not possess the perfection of his calculations but served to prove not just celestial truths but a human one: that we can all follow his route, that his aims were attainable, and not the doing of a godlike, infallible scientist.
It is this humble utopianism, to turn the world on its head and around the sun, to commit to making this revolution a worldly one for the sake of humanity, that should encourage us to see that a new world is possible, ready to be forged. The inspiration and the call to science, humanity’s most potent arms, is there, hidden behind humble treatises, and we have no excuse.
Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo is being performed at Keble College, O’Reilly Theatre, Third Week of Michaelmas Term (30th October – 4th November 2019).