The Galileo Trial: Faux News from the 17th Century

by Leanne Ogasawara

50965500-galileo-pisa_custom-f89507f1a583b89ca237cc1bf648a57dee799c5b-s900-c85A man cloaked in myth, what if I told you that many of the stories we tell ourselves about Galileo are simply untrue? That not only did the great scientist not drop any balls off the top of the Tower of Pisa but he didn't invent the telescope either. And not only was he never excommunicated from the Catholic church but he wasn't imprisoned in a dungeon either. Would you be surprised if I brought up the fact that he had been given permission by the Pope to write on the very topic that people think got him into trouble?

Most people now realize that few believed in a flat earth even in the Middle Ages. But, were you also aware that many of the greatest natural philosophers working in mathematics and astronomy were not only theologians but were no more proponents of the Ptolemaic system than Galileo was? Indeed, the church at the time of Galileo did not have an issue with suppositions, mathematical models or observations–and many of the greatest scientists of the church were exploring the same scientific questions as Galileo.

So, the problem was not science versus religion (that would come later). Rather, it was really an issue of theological interpretation both within the church, which was not a monolith "other" as the trope suggests; and against the backdrop of the Counter-Reformation.

I think it helps to remember that up till the time of Galileo, physicists were really mathematicians, working in mathematical models–only rarely the experimentalists we imagine today. In particular, astronomers sought to describe phenomena and make predictions. They did not engage in discussions about causes or the nature of things as that was the work of theologians. Instead, they created useful astronomical (and astrological) charts and predictions. In the history of science there is much talk about "saving the phenomena" in order to make as accurate predictions as possible (see my post here on how we are seeing this again today with regard to quantum mechanics). And guess what? Before the invention of the telescope, the Copernican understanding did not make much better predictions than the Ptolemaic system. If you think about it, until Kepler's Law of Ellipses were accepted, the Copernican system was the geometric mirror image of the Ptolemaic one –and therefore still required many, many tweaks to it, including epicycles.

3949195Ah, Galileo….. While he did not invent the telescope, he was the first to train it on the night sky, where seeing the phases of Venus, he changed everything. From that point on, it would be very difficult for anyone to claim that Aristotle and Ptolemy were correct. It was simply obviously not true; for there was no other way to explain the phases other than that Venus revolved around the sun. At the time of Galileo, in fact, scholars were debating the merits of various systems, many Jesuits (and Lutherans) holding to a version of Tycho Brahe's "Tychonic System," which saw the planets revolving around a sun that itself revolved around the earth. For the obvious reasons, most people of the time found it counter-intuitive to imagine a geokinetic earth (for example, where was the wind you would expect from rotating and revolving earth then?) And so, many tried to save the geostatic component of the old Aristotelian/Ptolemaic system– though many others were open to the idea of a moving earth. {Yesterday a young future scientist visited Caltech and as he was describing his muon experiment and relativity over lunch, I have to say I felt a resistance as he described time dilation. It is counter-intuitive and I do think human beings expect theory to match what they can observe and most people will hesitate and not be hasty about counter-intuitive truth claims. I say this just to be fair to the people of Galileo's day}.

So anyway, what happened then?

Galileos_dialogue_titlGalileo was very careful and had traveled to Rome long before beginning to write his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. After explaining his project to Pope Urban VIII himself, he obtained permission to go forward. The pope simply demanded that Galileo emphasize and end his book with this ideological loophole: no matter which system man might find more appealing, God can work in whatever way he pleases. In other words, one could talk about observations and models as hypotheticals without delving into ultimate causes or the nature of God. A man, a mere mortal could not question God's ultimate omnipotence by stating anything as a universal truth.

Why were they so picky? This all this talk of suppositions versus universals seems like hair splitting to to us now. But, it has to be recalled that this was all taking place during what was a very rough time for the Church, which had lost countless souls to Martin Luther and his claim that everyone had an individual path to God and universal truth. The Protestants preached that the Bible and Truth were matters for each person to work out as part of their own personal relationship with God. The Catholic church, for all the obvious reasons, begged to differ about this and the pushback was to insist that not only was truth the possession of the church alone but that tradition (in the form of councils and the writings of the church fathers) was equal to that of revelation.

A moving earth contradicted certain passages in the Bible and thus was problematic. But that was nothing compared to the Bible being translated into vernacular languages and people suddenly becoming free to judge things on their own. Thousands of people and entire countries were rejecting the Catholic church–so it launched the offensive known as the counter-reformation.

Galileo, being a good Catholic, made it known to the Pope that he was on the same page and was therein given the blessing of the Pope, as well being granted an official imprimatur (permission to publish).

One can only wonder why he brazenly put the verbatim words of the Pope into the mouth of the book's character known as "Simplicio" (a simpleton in not just name only). Was that why he was soon after brought back to Rome to speak with the Inquisition? Many believe it was this personal insult to Pope Urban, who considered Galileo as a friend and was deeply hurt to see himself cast a fool in Galileo's book. Other historians of science see it as a conflict between Galileo and contemporary philosophers over issues ranging from atomism to notions of causes in scientific inquiry. It's true that no mention of science was discussed during the trial, as matters were kept to a more legalistic nature (i.e., whether he had broken a prior official injunction from 1616 concerning the scope of permissible arguments on the subject of Copernican theory). While we can never know exactly what was the ultimate cause of his trouble with Rome, it seems safe to say that Galileo was an ardent Catholic his entire life and enjoyed the friendship and protection of some very powerful people, since he was considered by many to be the greatest mathematician of the time. He might have just gotten really cocky–feeling safe in the protection of such powerful friends, he might have simply gotten carried away following his Dialogue where it took him. The book (like many in that age) was written in the form of a play or dialogue, and I can imagine him getting taken away by the momentum of the characters and the story. He was a great fan of poetry, in particular Ludovico Aristo's epic poem, Orlando Furioso. Galileo had been known, in fact, to compare himself to the knight in Orlando condescending to a chivalrous duel with a knight of lesser ability. He had a way, suggested John Heilbron in his biography of Galileo, of making opponents out as not just wrong– but unworthy. Humility was definitely not his strong suit!

That said, he should have probably seen trouble coming. After all, had not the previous Pope excommunicated all of the people of Venice for several years? And had not this same pope (or someone near him) taken out a hit on Galileo's close friend Paolo Sarpi— also in Venice– nearly killing him in the process? Believe me, I am not doing Christian apologetics here. Nor am I trying to be provocative like the great Paul Feyerabend, who at one time said the church had done what it should have….

IMG_7335 2Still, I have come to really hate faux news and tropes.

The more I read about Galileo, the more I have wondered about the persistent myths about Galileo as a "martyr for science." And more I have wondered about this trope of the trial as a pivotal battle of science against religion. When I asked a Galileo expert here at Caltech about it, the professor mentioned that indeed in Italy the trial is seen much more in terms of a religious conflict and that often books on the Galileo Affair have the words counter-reformation right in the titles.

Concerning this religion versus science trope, one of the best-known and prolific Galileo experts in the US, Stillman Drake, mentioned something interesting in his Galileo: A Very Short Introduction. Drake is the translator of my edition of the Dialogue and his Short Introduction packs a serious punch. He argues that the case was not driven by defiance against the church but rather by hostility between Galileo and contemporary philosophers. He goes on to suggest that the persistent myths surrounding Galileo, which have duped not just students but some very great minds as well, such as Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others), could be caused by bad timing. Explaining that the Inquisition materials only came to light about a hundred years ago, their eventual release and publication occurred precisely at the time that the English-language world was embroiled in the tremendous controversy over Darwinism.

Our own 3Quarks Daily associate Paul Braterman has worked tirelessly in these pages to educate us all about how those vicious and irrational debates continue down to today. This is demonstrated, for example, by the very use of the term "Darwinism." In what other scientific area is a scientist's name used instead of the mechanism being described? Darwin's theories continue to make some people very uncomfortable and this is certainly a case of science versus the church–as is climate change, I would argue. So, while the inaccuracies surrounding Galileo drive historians of science crazy, they might themselves have a historical reason behind them. History by association?

Indeed, even three hundred years later, the drama continues. The professor in my Galileo class today mentioned the case of the former Vatican Observatory director, Jesuit priest and astrophysicist George Coyne, who got into trouble (that is to say, he was probably he was sacked) by the Vatican for his vocal criticism of intelligent design (this is a wonderful, short read). This happened only ten years ago!! Looking him up, I found this great paper by him on the Galileo Affair. And so it continues. In the end, the human impulses that led to the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution (the Secular Age) are bound together with a common thread: individual enlightenment, reason, observation, and even revelation can –and should–trump institutionally sanctioned and politically convenient truth. Galileo starred in the first act of this long drama, and Darwin will likely not close the curtain.

++ Myths about Galileo

My favorite history of science blog Renaissance Mathematicus: Science Contra Galileo & Perpetuating the Myths

My post on Galileo, Kepler and Schrödinger's cat

Highly recommend:

John Heilbron's biography Galileo and Kim Robinson's SF novel Galileo's Dream, which as Gary K. Wolfe has suggested, might just be the most memorable and compelling Galileo we have imagined yet, precisely because Robinson so expertly weaves in both some truth and some myth about the great scientist. Robinson's novel is my favorite book so far of 2017!

Alcina below, based on Galileo's favorite poem Orlando Furioso