The True Story About Galileo

Posted: September 9, 2011 in history, nature, science

Joe Carter writing for First Things:

Here is the real story about Galileo Galilei. It’s not the story about an enlightened scientist being persecuted by a narrow-minded Catholic Church because that story is (mostly) a myth. It’s not a story about a great scientific genius either, though he was that (mainly)…

In Galileo’s day, the predominant view in astronomy was a model first espoused by Aristotle and developed by Claudius Ptolemy in which the sun and planets revolved around the earth. The Ptolemic system had been the reigning paradigm for over 1400 years when a Polish Canon named Nicholas Copernicus published his seminal work, On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs…

In his efforts to cram Copernicanism down the throats of his fellow scientists, Galileo managed only to squander the goodwill he had established within the Church. He was attempting to force them to accept a theory that, at the time, was still unproven. The Church graciously offered to consider Copernicanism a reasonable hypothesis, albeit a superior one to the Ptolemaic system, until further proof could be gathered. Galileo, however, never came up with more evidence to support the theory. Instead, he continued to pick fights with his fellow scientists even though many of his conclusions were being proven wrong (i.e., that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles)…

Galileo then wrote A Dialogue About the Two Chief World Systems in which he would present the views of both Copernicus and Ptolemy. Three characters would be involved: Salviati, the Copernican; Sagredo, the undecided; and Simplicio, the Ptolemian (the name Simplicio implying “simple-minded”). And here is where we find our hero making his biggest blunder: he took the words that Pope Urban had used to refute his theory of the tides and put them in the mouths of Simplicio.

The Pope was not amused.

Galileo, who was now old and sickly, was once again called before the Inquisition. Unlike most suspected heretics, though, he was treated surprisingly well. While waiting for his trial, Galileo was housed in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens and provided with a personal valet.

In his defense, Galileo tried a peculiar tactic. He attempted to convince the judges that he had never maintained nor defended the opinion that the earth moves and that the sun is stationary and that he had, in fact, demonstrated the opposite by showing how the Copernican hypothesis was in error. The Holy Office, who knew they were being played for fools, condemned him as being “vehemently suspected of heresy”, a patently unjust ruling considering that Copernicanism had never been declared heretical.

Galileo’s sentence was to renounce his theory and to live out the rest of his days in a pleasant country house near Florence. Obviously the exile did him good because it was there, under the care of his daughter, that he continued his experiments and published his best scientific work, Discourses on Two New Sciences. He died quietly in 1642 at the ripe old age of 77.

It’s a fascinating post (read all of it), not simply for the historical corrective to the story of Galileo, but also for how it relates to the current “battle” between faith and science.

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