Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Myth of Galileo

Most of us are familiar with at a least  few of the scores of urban myths that abound:  the dog put in the microwave to dry, the boy who dies from eating "pop rocks" and drinking soda at the same time.  The advent of the internet has allowed for an explosion of myths like these, forwarded with a note that it came from someone's second-best friend's third cousin's step-father's neighbor so IT MUST BE TRUE!!!  And then you check a bit and find that the same e-mail has been floating around for a decade.

History also develops urban legends, spurred by desires, attitudes, and fears of the cultures they spring from:  George Washington and the cherry tree comes to mind.  Unfortunately, nastier legends like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion still hold credence because it suits particular attitudes.

Among the great urban legends of science is that of Galileo.  He is used as proof that the Catholic Church is anti-science and anti-modern thought, and is often, like the Crusades (which I addressed a bit here), thrown out as if it is a trump card, with "Look at Galileo!" substituted for actual debate.

Galileo Galilei: 1564 - 1642
Galileo, while a major astronomer and physicist of his time, never discovered or proved that the earth moves around the sun.  The heliocentric concept had been around for at least 2,000 years - Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) and Ptolemy (c. 90 AD - c. 168 AD) both worked to refute it. The particular theory promoted by Galileo was developed by a Catholic priest by the name of Nicholas Copernicus (1473 - 1543), who was years dead by the time of Galileo's birth in 1564. Copernicus' manuscript, published just before he died, had been circulated among scholarly circles for years and had intrigued Pope Leo X (r. 1513-1521) enough to interest him in their advancement.    Although it seemed to contradict Scripture and could not be proven by scientific technology, the Church raised little objection to the Copernican sun-centered hypothesis as long as it was not represented as undisputed fact.

Astronomer Copernicus or Conversations With God,  by Matejko
Galileo, like Copernicus before him, was a believing Catholic who saw no contradiction between science and faith.  This was not unusual:  the Catholic Church already had a long history of scientific exploration, particularly of astronomy, and the Gregorian Calender promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 was developed by a Jesuit mathematician. (For an interesting, brief article read "The Pope and The Astronauts" at American Spectator.)

The Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo, Italy
The Vatican also maintains a large observatory complex in Arizona

In 1610, Galileo published  The Starry Messenger, which detailed his observations of the moons of Jupiter, the location of stars, and the shape of the moon.  In 1611 he was honored in Rome for his work, receiving a favorable audience with Pope Paul V.  He became friends with Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who would become Pope Urban VII and who honored Galileo with a poem.

But Galileo's observations threatened the status quo of the scientific community, and many of his fellow astronomers began to attack him.  The majority of the scientists of Galileo's time still supported the Ptolemaic, or earth-centered universe.  Astronomy was much advanced by the invention of telescopes in 1609, but proof of a heliocentric system was still 150 years in the future.

The Ptolemaic System
Unfortunately, instead of keeping the debate at the level of theoretical science where it belonged, Galileo began to combine it with theology.  He declared that nature cannot contradict the Bible, and if it appeared to do so then it was because we do not adequately understand the deeper Biblical interpretation.  The eyes of a modern Catholic see this as the Catholic understanding of the role of faith and science.  But this was during the theological upheavals of the Reformation and the complex politics of a complex era.  Galileo was teaching Copernican theory as fact when there was no scientific fact to back it up.  And once he combined an unsupportable scientific idea with scriptural disputes and began to publicly lecture on it, the Church felt the need to respond.

In 1616, a council of theologians advised the pope that it was possibly heresy to teach as fact that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the universe.  An edict was issued and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine conveyed an order to Galileo to cease defending his theories as fact and asked that he also refrain from scriptural discussions on the issue.  Galileo agreed.

Galileo's friend Cardinal Barberini ascended the papal throne as Pope Urban VIII in 1623, and in 1624 Galileo met with his old friend in Rome.  The new pope hinted that if he had been pope in 1616 no edict concerning a heliocentric universe would have been issued.  Pope Urban, however, did not believe that the Copernican theory could be proven and he was only willing to allow Galileo the right to discus it as a hypothesis.

Less than a decade later, Galileo again unleashed a firestorm with the publication of Dialogue.  In it, he heavily weighted his argument in favor of Copernican theory as truth and managed to insult the pope's own expressed views.  He infuriated his scientific enemies with snide and ridiculing dismissal of their views.  Church authorities viewed the publication as an attack on the veracity of Scripture that had no proof:  17th century science was not capable of establishing that the earth revolved around the sun.  And Galileo had broken his agreement to abide by the 1616 edict.

Galileo's trial was a by tribunal:  two officials and a secretary.  The 10 cardinals often portrayed were not present:  they reviewed and signed off on the testimony later.  Galileo's defense was that he had understood from Cardinal Bellarmine that he was not condemned in 1616 - true - and that Dialogue did not support the Copernican theory as fact - not so true.

Didn't Happen
Seven of the ten cardinals signed a condemnation of Galileo that found him "vehemently suspected of heresy" in teaching as truth that the earth moves and is not the center of the universe.  Found guilty in persisting in such teaching when he had been formally warned not to do so, his book was prohibited, he was confined to formal imprisonment, ordered to publicly renounce his beliefs, and to perform penance.

It is not true that Galileo was tortured:  the records show that he could not be tortured because of regulations laid down in The Directory for Inquisitors (Nicholas Eymeric, 1595). This was the official guide of the Holy Office, the Church office charged with dealing with such matters, and was followed to the letter.   Nor was his imprisonment particularly harsh. Galileo’s friend Nicolini, Tuscan ambassador to the Vatican, sent regular reports to the court regarding affairs in Rome and many of his letters dealt with the ongoing controversy surrounding Galileo.  Nicolini reported to the Tuscan king: "The pope told me that he had shown Galileo a favor never accorded to another" (letter dated Feb. 13, 1633); " . . . he has a servant and every convenience" (letter, April 16); and "[i]n regard to the person of Galileo, he ought to be imprisoned for some time because he disobeyed the orders of 1616, but the pope says that after the publication of the sentence he will consider with me as to what can be done to afflict him as little as possible."

Galileo's trial was not that of a scientist arguing the supremacy of reason and science over faith.  Both Galileo AND the judges believed that science and the Bible could not stand in contradiction.  Indeed, Cardinal Bellarmine had argued the same point in 1615, writing that if the "orbiting of the Earth around the sun were ever to be demonstrated to be certain, then theologians...would have to review biblical passages apparently opposed to the Copernican theories so as to avoid asserting the error of opinions proven to be true."  It was a trial born out of Galileo's acerbic personality, jealous competitive scientists, the complexities of the time, and the Holy Father's belief that Galileo had betrayed him.

 Nor was it proof against the doctrine of papal infallibility: a much mis-undersood doctrine, it was at no point involved in the controversy, trial, or any papal statements since.

In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV gave his imprimatur to a publication of the full works of Galileo.  By 1757 science had reached the point of proving heliocentrism and works discussing it as proven were no longer banned.

The Vatican Observatory website, with news and photos, is here.

The Solar System as we knew it 10 years ago

The Solar System as we know it now


  1. Interesting history, thanks for the lesson :-)

    1. Thanks - I wish so much didn't get so skewed and mis-represented. And that it wasn't so hard to get so much down in a reasonable space...