The Measuring Lynx. Two Widespread Mistakes in the Galileo Literature
The article deals with two widespread mistakes concerning Galileo: A false quotation and a translation error. The quotation reads as follows: “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.” Although Galileo is quoted with these words in a large number of publications, the authenticity of the sentence is highly dubious because no one has ever provided a precise bibliographical reference for where to find it in Galileo’s works. Galileo’s alleged rule about measurement can be traced back to the works of two nineteenth century French scholars. This phrase was subsequently picked up by some internationally renowned scientists, who were responsible for its dissemination in German and English books and articles. The two English versions of the measurement quotation published by Hermann Weyl in the late forties of the last century strongly contributed to its worldwide diffusion. The sentence was even re-translated into German and French, and in recent scientific textbooks it is frequently used in order to characterize the methods of modern science. Notwithstanding its increasing popularity, referring to this expression as a quotation from Galileo is a striking example of academic sloppiness. The translation error concerns the name of the Roman Academy of which Galileo was a member. Referring to its emblem, a lynx, Accademia dei lincei is often translated as “Academy of (the) Lynxes”. But the Italian noun for lynx is feminine (la lince), and the Italian translation of “Academy of the Lynxes” would be Accademia delle linci. The adjective linceo, however, means “lynx-eyed” in the sense of “sharp-sighted”, and therefore the correct translation of Accademia dei lincei is “Academy of the Lynx-Eyed”.