Quirky portrayal brings ‘Galileo’s Battle’ to life

Times Staff Writer

“Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens,” on PBS’ “Nova” series tonight, might well have been a boring video version of a Smithsonian exhibition, drenched in sepia tones and wrapped in the dulcet tones of narrator Liev Schreiber.

It is rescued by British actor Simon Callow, perhaps best known as the gregarious dandy who died dramatically in “Four Wedding and a Funeral.” He plays Galileo with a kitschy brilliance, convincingly conveying Galileo’s stubborn, even snobbish stance against the 17th century Roman Catholic Church, which banned his books and put him under house arrest for challenging the prevailing view of the Earth as the center of the universe.

Ultimately, of course, Galileo was vindicated, liberating future generations of scientists to explore the universe we all know today.

For all his brilliance -- including his widely acknowledged role as “the father of modern science” -- Galileo’s most profound achievement may have been as a glass grinder. Had he not been capable of shaping the first real telescope lenses, we might still be trying to figure out why that big yellow ball in the sky keeps revolving around the Earth. Able to peer through the first real telescopes, Galileo got the world’s first up-close peek at Jupiter, which he discovered had its own orbiting moons.


But it was his observation that the sun’s light changed Venus from an oval to a crescent that led him to conclude that it must be orbiting the sun, rather than the Earth. This, in turn, led to the revolutionary -- and dangerous -- conclusion that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

Galileo may be science history’s most sympathetic figure -- as well as, ironically, a faithful Catholic himself -- but he was no angel. He had three children out of wedlock, a major faux pas at the time, and reportedly liked to have a good time, much like Callow’s character in “Four Weddings.” This lifestyle did not work in his favor. But what really put him over the edge was his 1632 publication of the book “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems,” which not only espouses his theory of the solar system, but also has a simpleton mouth the words of the then-reigning Pope Urban VIII. Callow’s quirky portrayal brings to life a Galileo who would wave his finger in the face of the all-powerful church.

But the astronomer clung to his views for far more powerful reasons than a clash with the church. Galileo knew how important it is for those of us who inhabit this planet to know our place in the universe. In the program, which is based on science writer Dava Sobel’s book “Galileo’s Daughter,” one scientist says Galileo believed that “the Bible was the true word of God. He just didn’t think it was a good astronomy textbook.”





What: “Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens”



When: 8 p.m. tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be inappropriate for young children)