A Modern Fairy Tale

The Git wrote much of the following some ten years ago and thought it worth updating and republishing.

Part 1

One of the Just-So Stories that scientists love to tell is the old favourite about Galileo’s persecution by the Inquisition. As scientists tell it, Galileo (the enlightened man of science) stands accused of holding the heretical belief that the Earth moves around the sun facing the entrenched dogma of Church and Bible. It is a story we have read so often that it’s difficult not to believe in it.

Unfortunately, very, very few historians agree. The problem with historians is that they have the exasperating habit of reading what was written at the time, not just what other historians have written in the past. Galileo may have been guilty of heresy, but on the other hand, he may not. The fathers of the Church at the time certainly didn’t agree on this. Galileo had many detractors, but he also had many supporters, including his friend Urban VIII, the Pope at the time of Galileo’s trial and the chief theologian, and head of the Inquisition, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino (sometimes spelt Bellarmine).

To put his life in perspective, we must bear in mind what Galileo was guilty of:

  • Many of Galileo’s scientific theories were completely wrong
  • Galileo frequently claimed to have proofs where no proof existed
  • Galileo remained blissfully unaware of Johannes Kepler’s interpretation of planetary motion even though he owned Kepler’s book about the subject — Kepler had sent it to his friend
  • Galileo needlessly made many enemies. Many of those enemies had actually been friends, but Galileo seemed to relish making enemies.

The Holy Roman Catholic Church is not the main villain in the story. Galileo’s true-blue, get-’em-at-any-cost enemies were the “vast majority of experts”: his rival university professors. At the time, almost everything they believed and taught was based on the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotelean philosophy divides knowledge up into:

  • Logic
  • Theoretical Philosophy (metaphysics, physics and mathematics)
  • Practical Philosophy (ethics and politics)
  • Poetical Philosophy (the study of poetry and the other fine arts)

Galileo rejected Aristotle’s lumping of metaphysics, physics and mathematics into one, solitary category. He believed that mathematics and physics, the tools of true scientists, were separate and distinct from metaphysics, the subject matter of faith and the teachings of the Bible. Galileo’s Aristotelian rivals interpreted the Bible in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy and it was this that would eventually enable Galileo to be tried as a heretic. From their point of view, any attack on Aristotle was an attack on the Bible. Further, they were scornful of mathematics in which they had no training. To them, mathematicians were “mere geometers”.

The university professors, or Scholastics as they are often referred to, quite understandably, resented Galileo’s utter rejection of the venerated Aristotle. Worse, they even more bitterly resented their inability to respond to Galileo’s arguments with successful arguments of their own. The arguments persisted for twenty years and the Aristotelians lost every single debate with him. It was only after Galileo eventually embraced Copernicus’ theory of the heliocentric universe that they were able to enlist the Church on their side in the conflict.

Before we get to the denouement of the tale, we need to know somewhat of Galileo the man. The Italian Renaissance was in full swing in 1564, the year Galileo was born. He was the kind of man the Renaissance is renowned for: intellectually brilliant, articulate, witty, pious almost to a fault and a bon vivant who loved his wine. As well as excelling in mathematics and science, he wrote plays, composed poems and played several musical instruments. Needless to say, this made him the life and soul of parties in a time deprived of television. To add to this list of admirable qualities, Galileo was also one of the most gifted writers of his day.

Galileo’s main contribution to the development of the scientific method was his keenness for experiment and observation. He was an empiricist convinced that Nature’s laws were reducible to mathematical equations. More than any other, Galileo is rightly considered the founder of the modern scientific method.

Aristotle’s science looked not just to description of nature, but also for purpose. Everything had its appropriate level within a fixed natural order. The Aristotelian “scientific method” abhorred measurement in favour of classification. The universe had an intricate, cohesive and coherent structure — in modern parlance, it was holistic. Calling into question any part of the structure was a threat to the whole.

One of Galileo’s more famous experiments is supposedly his early refutation of the Aristotelian theory that objects fall to earth in proportion to their weight. Everyone at the time believed that an object of two units weight would fall twice as fast as an object of one unit weight. Galileo, in front of an enthralled audience, dropped a cannon ball and a musket ball from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa. Galileo’s theory that both would reach the ground at the same time was almost correct. The musket ball was marginally slowed relative to the cannon ball by the additional friction it encountered relative to its weight. The Aristotelians claimed that the small margin by which the cannon ball won was a victory for them, though all the open-minded and educated in the audience clearly knew that it needed the musket ball to still be several yards short for true vindication. It was a great victory for Galileo and he made the most of it. Or he would have had this account not been first written many years after Galileo’s death.

What actually happened was Galileo asked us to consider what would happen if two iron balls were tied together as one by an iron rod. The smaller and lighter ball, according to Aristotelian physics, would slow down the ascent of the larger, heavier ball. Yet the combined weight, being greater than either ball alone, meant that they would fall faster when tied together, as well as slower. Since a contradiction was (and remains) not allowed, the answer to the problem was that objects necessarily fall at the same rate, regardless of their weight. Galileo had successfully demonstrated that Aristotle had been wrong about falling weights. Nicole Oresme had beaten Galileo to this conclusion almost 300 years before, but there’s no evidence that he knew of Oresme’s work. Oresme also beat Galileo to the conclusion that the rising and setting of the sun was caused by the Earth’s rotation, though Oresme was considerably more circumspect in the way he put this proposition.

Galileo was not only a theoretician of high calibre, he was also a great experimenter and maker of scientific instruments. Galileo doesn’t state where the real falling balls experiment took place, but the height is given. It’s some 90 metres higher than the tower at Pisa, so when Newton wrote of standing on the shoulders of giants, this must have been almost literally true. At first, the wooden ball fell quicker than the iron ball. Then the iron ball caught up with the wooden ball and overtook it reaching the ground well ahead. Galileo also gives a first class explanation for this divergence from the results of his thought experiment. He had discovered friction.

Well, as the man who jumped off the Empire State Building said as he passed the thirteenth floor: “so far, so good”. We have come to the end of saying much in the way of nice things about Galileo, though if you want to read more nice things about him,  you can read Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter written from the perspective of the daughter’s letters to him. As well as the positive traits mentioned before, Galileo had a dark side. In modern parlance, we would call him an arrogant prick! Doubtless many in his day used appropriately similar terms.

Galileo had an ego bigger than just about anyone who ever pulled on a pair of underpants. He flatly refused to believe that anyone else in the universe could ever have such brilliant insights into the nature of the world than his. For example, he thoroughly detested Tycho Brahe, who was a far better astronomer and achieved more in his naked eye observations than Galileo managed with the aid of his telescopes. Without reading the book Johannes Kepler had sent him, he told Kepler he was a fool for believing that planetary orbits were anything other than perfectly circular. Kepler, correctly, had deduced the orbits were elliptical. He also spurned Kepler’s belief that the tides were due to the influence of the moon because that was astrological bullshit. Never mind that Galileo taught and practiced astrology for many years without mention of any scepticism to his students, or clients.

Further, in 1597 Johannes Kepler wrote to Galileo to tell him that he had been converted to Copernicus’ theory of the heliocentric universe. Galileo was furious that Kepler could have reached an intellectual conclusion ahead of him and replied that he had been a Copernican for several years prior to Kepler’s conversion. Galileo’s voluminous other correspondence shows no grounds for the claim and he continued to teach the Aristotelian system at Padua University for many years.

Ridicule of his rival professors for their Aristotelian beliefs was a favourite occupation. Galileo’s letters make it clear he was obsessed with overthrowing Aristotle. He wrote to Kepler: “Your new book is going to discomfit these stuffed robes of learning. How I love to see them stuck, silent with popping eyes, the figure of ignorance.” The loathing was mutual. His rivals hissed at his anti-Aristotle diatribes during the classes Galileo taught. They began actively plotting Galileo’s downfall and formed what Galileo contemptuously called The Pigeon League (after its leader: Lodovico delle Colombe) to discredit him.

When Galileo heard of the telescope in 1609, he immediately imported one from Holland. Soon after receiving it, he had made a much improved version and told everyone who would listen that he invented it. When he pointed it toward the heavens, his life was transformed. He could now conclusively prove Aristotle wrong, and he went from being a relatively obscure university professor to become a world leader in astronomy.

Aristotle believed that the heavens were immutable and the heavenly bodies appearing there were not composed of earth, air, fire and water like substances on earth, but of another substance entirely. The earth was the centre of the universe. The sun, moon, planets and stars orbited it in perfect circles. This created severe problems with predicting the future arrangements of the planets, a matter of some concern to the Church. The Calendar and the planetary positions ceased to agree over sufficiently long periods of time. Since it was important to celebrate holy feast days on the correct days (else suffer the wrath of God), the Church actively encouraged improvements in astronomy.

Ptolemy improved Aristotle’s model of the universe by incorporating a system of epicycles: circles within circles. As the predictions of Ptolemy’s model drifted from observation, it was continually updated with an ever increasing number of epicycles to improve its accuracy. Copernicus wrote: “such a complicated system to explain the motion of only seven heavenly bodies is unworthy of the hand of the Creator” and in 1543 he proposed that the sun, rather than the earth was at the centre of the universe. The planets, including the earth, all orbited the sun. Unfortunately, Copernicus could not reject Aristotle’s notion that the planets moved in anything but perfect circles, so he retained 34 of Ptolemy’s epicycles while needing to add several of his own. The Copernican system was no less unwieldy and certainly no more accurate than  Ptolemy’s and so was not particularly successful from any practical point of view.

Benefiting from Kepler’s insight, Galileo mustered observational evidence with his telescopes that made the Copernican model more credible. Galileo observed that the moon had mountains and seas, rather than Aristotle’s perfectly uniform ethereal substance. It appeared in fact rather similar to the earth. Galileo was certain he now had his conclusive proof that Aristotle was wrong. Galileo also discovered Jupiter’s four larger moons — yet more evidence to discredit Aristotle who had taught that there were only seven heavenly bodies. Further, the moons were not left behind as Jupiter moved, again contradicting Aristotle, whose teaching was that everything had its natural place and if the earth moved, the moon would be left behind. The Milky Way also changed from a band of light into a river of stars, another refutation of Aristotle.

Galileo’s invitation to his fellow university professors to see the new heavenly wonders for themselves was met with unsurprising hostility. Some refused to look through the telescope at all, suspecting that Galileo had invented a new trick to discredit, or ridicule them. Of those who did look, many claimed that there was nothing to see, or what appeared were merely flaws in the lenses. How could they see anything real that had not already been adequately described by Aristotle more than a thousand years ago?

Galileo fared much better with the Jesuit astronomers at Rome since they were interested in solving the more practical problem of celebrating holy days on the correct dates. Their own telescope had revealed and confirmed Galileo’s discoveries. Galileo’s subsequent trip to Rome was triumphal. Father Clavius, the Gregorian calendar’s author, gracefully became a convert, despite being initially sceptical of Galileo’s claims. The Church’s foremost theologian, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, sought from the Jesuits their official opinion of Galileo. The Jesuits reported on him in the most favourable terms.

Galileo could not content himself with having successfully made new friends and converts at court. He commenced converting as many as possible into enemies. In 1612, the Jesuit astronomer, Christopher Scheiner, wrote a letter reporting his observation of spots on the sun. As usual, Galileo was infuriated that he had been beaten by an inferior intellect and immediately claimed to have observed sunspots over a year before. Galileo always wrote of such things in his voluminous correspondence with his close friends, but there is no evidence of his writing about sunspots prior to Scheiner’s report.

It was not enough for Galileo to attempt to steal Scheiner’s thunder, however. Galileo later wrote that Scheiner, having heard of Galileo’s sunspots, had repeated his work claiming it as his own. Scheiner was outraged enough at being plagiarised. Being accused of plagiarism by the true plagiariser was infinitely worse. This was too much for the whole order of Jesuits who henceforth joined forces with the university professors to plot Galileo’s comeuppance.

Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino was asked to investigate the matter of Galileo’s support of the Copernican model of the universe. He in turn asked Galileo whether he had any proof of its validity. Galileo’s only evidence was his observation of Venus’s moon-like phases implying that Venus orbited the sun. However, Bellarmino pointed out that Tycho Brahe had already incorporated this observation with Ptolemy’s model by proposing that Venus orbits the sun and the sun orbits the earth, carrying Venus with it.

The Inquisition demanded Galileo recant. On Cardinal Bellarmino’s advice, he admitted his error and agreed to only refer to the Copernican model as hypothesis in the future. Pope Paul V personally assured Galileo that his enemies and their plots were known to him and that he therefore had nothing to fear from them.

In 1618 three comets appeared and Galileo saw another opportunity to wage war on the Aristotelians. Despite the fact that Tycho Brahe had already established that comets were farther away than the moon and the paths of these comets were clearly not circles, Galileo still believed that heavenly bodies only moved in perfectly circular orbits. They could not vary their distance from the sun unless they were influenced by some force. Galileo had already rejected Johannes Kepler’s suggestion that force being something akin to magnetism as astrological bullshit.

Galileo had settled on the idea that comets were earthly in origin. They were vapours that had emanated from the earth and travelling past the moon’s orbit, they reflected sunlight back to the earth. More than any other of his ideas, this was not only the worst, but also indicative of how far he would go to refuse to believe anyone else’s ideas, even those of the likes of the worthy Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

Father Orazio Grassi, another Jesuit, preferred Tycho Brahe’s model of the universe. He believed that comets orbit the sun while the sun orbits the Earth. This was closer to the truth than Galileo’s brand of horseshit, but it spurred Galileo to write The Assayer, wherein he delightedly and effectively tore Orazio Grassi’s argument to shreds. Galileo dedicated his new masterpiece to Pope Urban VIII who apparently thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite Galileo’s trumpeting his latest triumph, it hardened further the Jesuits’ loathing for him.

Flushed with success, Galileo returned to promoting Copernicus’ model of the universe. His book, A Dialogue About the Two Chief World Systems, presented the views of Copernicus and Ptolemy, remembering that Ptolemy’s view was an embellishment on that of The Great Enemy: Aristotle. Three characters appear: Salviati, the Copernican (a thinly disguised Galileo), Sagredo, representing the undecided, though intelligent person and Simplicio, the arch-Aristotelian. Galileo almost certainly used the name Simplicio because of the resemblance to sempliciotto meaning simpleton. Simplicio’s utterances (except for one) throughout the book are clearly those of Galileo’s Aristotelian enemies.

Galileo had several audiences with his old friend Pope Urban VIII during which they discussed the pros and cons of Copernicus’ and Galileo’s ideas. Urban was far from being an intellectual slouch. He was a competent mathematician and patron of the sciences. Urban however remained unconvinced by Galileo’s “proof” that the tides in the sea could only be explained if the earth both rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun. Galileo’s reasoning is long-winded and complicated, as well as clearly incorrect. The entire final day of the Dialogue is devoted to it.

Urban’s response to Galileo’s “proof” was an order to insert in the Dialogue: “I maintain that your explanation of the tides is neither true nor conclusive, and that if you were asked whether God by his infinite power and wisdom might confer the reciprocal motion of the oceans in some other way than by making the contained vessel to move, you would say that he could, and in many ways, some beyond the reach of our intellect”. Urban either understood the tides better than Galileo, or he had made a lucky guess. The true cause of tides was in fact “beyond the reach of Galileo’s intellect”.

Next Galileo made a mistake almost beyond belief, as did The Git when recalling his readings of thirty years ago in completely forgetting about it (assuming he had read about it all those long years ago). Galileo had  Simplicio utter Urban’s words about the tides, or at least Galileo’s enemies told Urban he did. An exasperated Urban removed Galileo’s Papal protection from his enemies. He was in any event far too busy with his ambitious program of self-aggrandisement, his ongoing battle against the Protestants and the ambitions of the Spaniards at the Papal Court to be going into battle on behalf of Galileo merely because his friend was overfond of making enemies.

The machinery of the Church was now free to bring forward the trial so eagerly desired by Galileo’s university rivals and the Jesuits. In 1633 Galileo was asked whether he had obeyed the admonitions of 1615 to only present the Copernican theory as hypothesis? Galileo defended himself by pointing out that the Dialogue had passed not just one censor, but censorship at both Rome and Florence. Several peripheral charges laid against him were dismissed without argument from the three (not the dozens of the myth) judges, but they nevertheless found Galileo guilty of the main charge and banned his book.

Galileo had never shown the slightest sign of rebellion against his beloved  Church. so unsurprisingly he readily fell to his knees and recanted. The myth has Galileo defiantly declaring: “Yet it does move!” as he is carried away in chains to some deep, dark dungeon, but there is no evidence for this whatsoever. The Git would find it more believable that he had written apologies to Kepler, Brahe, Scheiner, Grassi and the host of others he had spent his life so gratuitously insulting!

The lack of severity of Galileo’s punishment is more than a little surprising. Had Urban been as furious as is claimed? The usual procedure with heretics was to torture them to extract as many lurid confessions as possible, then burn them at the stake as happened to Giordiano Bruno in 1600. Further, it was Standard Operating procedure to torture and burn the publisher, who on this occasion does not appear to have been punished in any way whatsoever. Galileo, on the other hand,  was ordered to recite the seven penitential psalms once a week for three years, which would have occupied him for all of fifteen minutes a week had his daughter not offered to recite them on his behalf. His piety would have had him spending far longer than that praying to his beloved God.

Galileo spent his final decade under house arrest in Tuscany, where he continued his experiments and his writings. He published his best scientific work Discourses on Two New Sciences on statics and dynamics in 1638. Were he the complete atheistic opponent of the Church claimed by The Myth, he would never have been allowed the intellectual freedom to complete this final, though uncharacteristically subdued for Galileo, work. He died in 1642 aged 77.

Part Two

In the first part of this essay, The Git gave a brief overview of the Galilean controversy. Today we are going to look more closely at some of the Galilean Myth. First though, it has been pointed out that he did not properly explain the Aristotelians that Galileo so vehemently despised as mental pygmies. Galileo was himself an Aristotelian and so is The Git. That is, we accept Aristotle’s First Principle of Logic. A thing cannot be both true and false, for example (not to mention the other two Principles). What Galileo rejected was Aristotle’s physics (natural philosophy). We looked yesterday at the example of Aristotle’s belief that objects fall toward the earth in proportion to their weight and Galileo’s refutation.

The despised Aristotelians were known variously as Schoolmen, or Scholastics. They believed that the Greek philosophers had discovered all that was worth knowing and that it was impossible to discover any truth that either they, or the Bible had not already explained. Belief in this idea had not arrived without considerable controversy and took some three hundred years to achieve widespread acceptance.

The first major issue The Git will attempt to deal with today, though, is the matter of Galileo’s supposed heresy. Inside the front of the Dialogue Galileo had retained for his own library he wrote:

Take care, theologians, that in wishing to make matters of faith of the propositions attendant on the motion and stillness of the Sun and the Earth, in time you probably risk the danger of condemning for heresy those who assert the Earth stands firm and the sun moves; in time, I say, when sensately or necessarily it will be demonstrated that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still.

Galileo is saying several important things here. First, he is affirming his commitment to the ability of science (human reason) to find truth. Second, he is admitting that there is as yet no proof known to him of the motion of the earth. This despite the fact that everyone knows that Galileo proved that such was the case. The orbital motion of the earth around the sun was first shown by James Bradley when he discovered stellar aberration in 1729.The proof of the earth’s rotation awaited the invention of Foucault’s pendulum in 1851. It is interesting to ponder on what the Aristotelians would have made of this demonstration of the inertial motion they refused to believe in had Galileo made it. It was certainly something he might well have done.

The note recapitulates what Galileo wrote in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. One should not attempt to explain the physical world by consulting the Bible. Galileo is admonishing theologians to avoid acting imprudently, or they might be faced with the unpleasant duty of condemning as heretical those propositions they currently declare to be orthodox. Here, Galileo is also recapitulating the beliefs of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine and even Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino. It was completely orthodox to believe that Biblical truths and scientific truths could not contradict each other and were in fact complementary. God created both sorts.

Galileo’s theology was not merely orthodox, it was exemplary according to the Jesuits that Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino asked to report to him about Galileo, Pope John Paul II and many, many others from Galileo’s time to this. Galileo a rebel against his beloved Church? That’s not just ridiculous, it’s insanely ridiculous! William E. Carroll, “Galileo and the Interpretation of the Bible,” Science & Education 8:2 (1999), pp. 151-187 writes extensively about this aspect of Galileo.

Another significant part of The Myth is that the Church was vehemently opposed to Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres published in 1543. Copernicus was afraid to publish, not because of any fear of the Church, but his fear of ridicule by the academics that Galileo was so scornful of. Prominent members of the Church including Pope Clement VII and Cardinal Schönberg had in fact encouraged him to publish the work! Arthur Koestler wrote: “Without the encouragement and patronage of the clergy — from the Bishop of Varmia to circles close to the Vatican — Canon Copernicus’ book would never have seen the light of day.” [Drinkers of Infinity: Essays 1955-1967, MacMillan, 1969] In the event, they were likely severely disappointed since it’s badly written, riddled with inconsistencies and the title page really sums the contents up admirably: For Mathematicians Only. The book was a flop and aroused no-one. It was met with almost complete and utter indifference.

It took in fact seventy two years for the Church to take any action after the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus. In 1615, the year of Galileo’s first trial by the Inquisition according to The Myth, the Inquisition actually met to decide the fate of three books, only one of which concerns us here: Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus. Arthur Koestler again:

On March 5, 1616 the Holy Office issued a decree in which “the Pythagorean doctrine of the motion of the earth” was declared to be “false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture”; to prevent its further spreading, Copernicus’s Book of the Revolutions was “suspended until it be corrected”. It actually remained on the Index for no more than four years; the corrections consisted in the change or omission of altogether nine sentences in which the heliocentric system was represented as a certainty instead of a hypothesis. Galileo’s name was not mentioned in the decree, his works were not prohibited, and to save him from public humiliation the injunction not to hold or defend the Copernican doctrine was communicated to him privately. To sweeten the pill even more, a week after publication of the decree, the Pope received Galileo in a long audience.

So what was communicated to Galileo in the audience with the Pope? In a nutshell that he was cool provided he only refer to the Copernican heliocentric model as a mathematical hypothesis. A bit like Feynman and Wheeler treated positrons as electrons travelling backwards through time in their famous paper on radiation resistance. Feynman wrote that they didn’t believe that this was literally true, just figuratively true. It made the sums come out right, so who gives a shit? This is akin to Galileo’s theological arguments in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina about the danger of taking the Bible as literally true. The examples he gave were all references to God’s body parts: the right hand of God, the eye of God and so forth. Taken literally, you would believe the blasphemous nonsense that God actually possesses a body! This can be usefully extended when dealing with fundamentalist God-bothers that knock on your door by the way. When they tell you they “believe in the literal truth of the Bible”, just ask them: “So which hand does God pick his nose with? The left, or the right?”

The question then arises, did Galileo take Pope Paul V’s advice, reiterated by Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino? From The Dialogue:

To this end I have taken the Copernican side in the discourse, proceeding as with a pure mathematical hypothesis and striving by every artifice to represent it as superior to supposing the earth motionless — not, indeed absolutely, but as against the arguments of some professed Peripatetics. These men indeed deserve not even that name, for they do not walk about; they are content to adore the shadows, philosophising not with due circumspection but merely from having memorised a few ill-understood principles.

It certainly looks like he did! And as The Git wrote yesterday, The Dialogue had passed two lots of censorship. So how, or why did Galileo make the fateful mistake of putting Pope Urban VIII’s words in Simplicio’s mouth? The Git must admit to being clueless on this point.

You can read Galileo’s Dialogue and quotes from the trial in 1633 for yourself.

So far, we have discovered that far from being guilty of heresy, Galileo was merely “vehemently suspected” of heresy. Had Galileo actually managed to prove the motion of the earth, rather than “vehemently suspect” that the earth moved, then the trial would most likely not have occurred. Note that Pietro Redondi (in Galileo Heretic. Princeton University Press, 1987) does not agree. He believes that it was a show trial and that the real issue was The Assayer and its calling into question the issue of transubstantiation. There is some merit to Redondi’s arguments, though they fall somewhat outside the scope of The Git’s current line of thought.

The Church of Galileo’s day, far from discouraging scientific investigation, actively supported it. It helps to use some admittedly imperfect (and therefore dangerous if taken too literally) analogies here. The Papal State was the keeper of The True Faith and it was at war, not with science, but with Protestantism. Significantly, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino was suspected by the English to be the mastermind behind Guy Fawkes and the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Before the Protestants broke away, the battle was with Islam. The analogous situation today is the US as The Keeper of the Faith who similarly were until recently at war with Evil Communism. Of late, Communism being not so scary any more, the US is battling Islam for people’s minds.

Italy was not a country in Galileo’s day; it was a conglomeration of various principalities that made war on each other from time to time, but generally agreed that to save men’s souls was A Very Good Thing and went to war on the Papal State’s behalf against whoever the current infidel happened to be.

Since success in these battles frequently depended on improvements in arms technology, and make no mistake, Galileo’s much improved telescope was more important in warfare than it was in astronomy, the Papal State was hardly likely to prevent, or severely hamper any of its leading scientists when it came to the crunch. Remember that one of the Soviet’s greatest errors was the embrace of Lysenkoism on ideological grounds, thus crippling agricultural productivity when compared with its rivals of the “free” world. Doubtless this played a significant role in the downfall of The Workers’ Paradise.

Galileo faced similar problems to any scientist today. He had to start climbing the academic ladder at the bottom, same as everyone else. His success in ascending that ladder was in proportion to his abilities to publish his work and also in competing with his rivals. Galileo’s main rivals were the Scholastic orthodoxy, since he had effectively synthesised a new discipline, mathematically based experimental physics by combining aspects of mathematics (Euclid and Pythagorus), Aristotle (logic and observation) and Plato (thought experiments). The Scholastics on the other hand embraced only Aristotle (their version anyway) and shared his abhorrence for mathematics.

Galileo’s Scholastic rivals were lambs for the slaughter. They lacked his abilities in logic, rhetoric and polemics. Critically, because they despised mathematics, they were left floundering in the face of his mathematical arguments. It’s no coincidence that Galileo’s great friend and supporter, Pope Urban VIII was also a mathematician. Galileo had his sights set on the very pinnacle of academic success. In those days, this was to become an official scientist at an Italian Prince’s court. While the duties would include the drudgery of being court astrologer, he would also become wealthy and have the time to indulge his own passions: mathematics and physics.

Galileo succeeded in his ambition by becoming the “Chief Mathematician of the University of Pisa and Philosopher and Mathematician to the Grand Duke of Tuscany” while simultaneously retaining his contract to the University of Padua and the salary from there. Had his ego been less huge, this should have more than sufficed. The astronomers Christopher Scheiner and Orazio Grassi were already anti-Aristotelian in their astronomy, and thus ripe for a full conversion to Copernicus’ model. But they had embraced Tycho Brahe’s universe and Galileo loathed Tycho Brahe almost as much as he did the Pigeon League. Taking the Jesuit astronomers on ensured his eventual comeuppance. Galileo’s true crimes were hubris and wasting twenty years of his life pursuing astronomical issues confining his important contributions to science, mechanics and the integration of science with mathematics, to the earliest and latest part of his admittedly long career.

The question then arises as to why the Galilean Myth arose in the first place. The leaders of the Enlightenment were looking for a predecessor hero as champion of their belief in the power of human reason alone to save mankind from itself. Their first choice, Sir Isaac Newton, was unbelievably pious. He wrote over a million words on religious issues, far more than he ever did on the mathematics and physics that he is remembered for. What’s more, he was taking both the Protestants and the Catholics to task for heresy! He even expected to lose his position in the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Trinity College for he refused to believe in the Trinity. But it was not to be. Newton was allowed his heretical, Unitarian beliefs and he remained not only unpunished, but ignored for his unorthodox religious beliefs.

Galileo, on the other hand, while he was also unbelievably pious, managed to make the error that led to his confrontation with the Inquisition. Leave out “vehemently suspected of” and you are left with heresy. Add a few chains, put the invented quote: “But it still moves!” in his mouth, have him defiantly stamping his foot and you instantly have a martyr to the cause.

As to why the Galilean Myth continues… Well, to be continued


One thought on “A Modern Fairy Tale

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s