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Vol. XV • 1993

Galileo: Martyr for Science?
Edward Coleson

One of the most harmful accusations that has ever been brought against the Church is the claim that it has always been against science in particular and progress in general. The example used to support this accusation has been Gahleo's controversy with the Catholic Church. Whatever one may think of that venerable institution, there are neglected aspects of the issue which ought to be pointed out to anyone interested in the history of science and ofteaching it today.

It should be no secret that the reason for defending Galileo with such zeal has simply been that it furnishes some people an opportunity to denounce the whole Christian community. One can agree that the Catholic hierarchy handled the case badly without necessarily exonerating Galileo. In fact, there are writers who say it may have been a clash of personalities much more than a learned disputation over the relationship of Scripture to science or even the merits of two very different theories. Pursuing the consequences of our humanity in decision-making a little further, the recent recognition by the Vatican that he was right is also very interesting. What Galileo was actually doing was defending the astronomy of Copernicus, as set forth in his great book published in 1543.

It may come as a surprise to the reader that Galileo could not prove that Copernicus was right when he found himself in trouble with the Church in 1615. The question of whether the earth or the sun is the center of what we call the solar system had perplexed the Greeks1 a couple thousand years earlier, but they could not solve the puzzle, nor could Copernicus when he published his theory in 1543. Objective proof for either alternative was still lacking when the Inquisition condemned Galileo for his "heretical opinions" ninety years later Some astronomers preferred the heliocentric system because it was simpler and seemed to be more logical; but preference is not proof.

Now while some arguments used against the theory of Copernicus are no doubt too ridiculous to merit discussion today, there were those that were serious deterrents even to those who questioned the Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy they had inherited from the ancients. An important reason the early Greeks had finally rejected the heliocentric system espoused by Copernicus was the fact that they realized correctly that if the earth followed a huge orbit around the sun every year, the heavens should look different when viewed from different locations on the way around - a phenomenon known as parallactic displacement of the stars. For example, the Big Dipper is a well known constellation in the northern hemisphere and over much of this area it is clearly visible every night in the year, when it isn't cloudy. Now you and I can see no change in the shape of the Dipper throughout the year; they couldn't either, so they gave up on a promising heliocentric theory to pursue a geocentric system which gave them nothing but trouble. In fact, Ptolemy2 admitted that putting the sun in the center had advantages, but he rejected the idea as ndiculous. His word became "astronomy" and remained so until Copernicus presumed to challenge his authority fourteen hundred years later. Indeed, it was long after Galileo's time before the triumph of the new astronomy was complete. In early America other systems "were taught concurrently at Harvard and at Yale."3 Copernican astronomy did not become public knowledge in Bogata, Colombia, until 1774, but it is worth noting that the Inquisition4 gave the accused a public hearing. He won by a landslide. The date for Havana was 1806. Part of this delay in Latin America was due to the fact that Spain and the Church sought to protect the colonies from heresy.5

Now if people had been content simply to admire the stars and write poetry about their beauty, there would have been no problem. But there were serious scholars who sought to understand the workings of the universe and our little part of it, and they pursued the subject for centuries. The so-called fixed stars were no problem for them, but the moving planets caused all the trouble. They seemed to be a law unto themselves. The wandered slowly throughout the heavens along the path followed by the sun and moon, and at times they even backed up6 and later resumed their journeys. Astronomers plotted their paths on celestial maps and tried to predict their future movements. Since putting the earth in the center of things made an impossible situation for those trying to do this, there was a growing resentment against a system that couldn't be made to work well. This prepared the way for Copernicus. Perhaps the irreverent remark of King Alfonso,7 the Wise, himself a competent astronomer, well illustrates the growing dissatisfaction: "Had I been present at the Creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe. As the ruler of a little Spanish kingdom, he distinguished himself in several ways during his reign (1252-84), but he left the task of "better ordering the universe" to Copernicus nearly three centuries later Whfle there were others who were looking for a simpler system too, we must remember that scholars, educated in a complicated discipline, will often reject a more simple approach as too elementary Galileo found that to be true when he tried to present the obvious advantages of heliocentric astronomy.

According to a letter which Ga,ileo wrote to John Kepler, he had "adopted the teaching of Copernicus many years ago, "but he had thought it wise to keep quiet about his beliefs. This must have been hard for him to do, because as his professors9 observed when he was a student, he was "an extremely argumentive youth." But then one day in 1608, he learned that a Dutch spectacle-maker10 had invented a telescope; Galfleo soon made a better one for himself. With his "spyglass" an inch in diameter and eighteen inches long, held in his hands, he became the first scientist to view the heavens with a telescope, but he "probably made as many important discoveries with it as has any modern astronomer using instruments approaching 200 inches in aperture."11 Fortified with his new device, he began to defend the Copernican system publicly. This was his undoing.

To understand how he might have made his discoveries known without tangling with the Church, one needs to know "the rules of the game" of that era. Disputation, or we would say debate, was a very important aspect of education at that time. Since, anything approaching heresy could lead to fagots and fire, you may be wondering how they could argue about anything important back then. They provided for this need in this way: the scholar taking the "wrong side" in the debate became the "devil's advocate." This gave him immunity. Galileo had powerful friends in the Church who urged him to declare that the Copernican system was just more simple mathematically,12 and avoid a theological confrontation. No one could deny this, but he still could not prove that there was an apparent shift among the stars when the constellations were viewed throughout the year. This was a necessary proof, but this fact would not be observed until 1830 (the stars are so far away that the width of the earth's orbit makes little difference in the appearance of the heavens). 13 Galileo was too sure of himself to he much concerned with this weakness in his proof. His presumption cost him dearly, but it did make him a scientific celebrity.

One can regret the treatment of Galileo and give him credit for his accomplishments without considering him infallible or even very tactful. His discoveries with his tdescope have already been mentioned. He may or may not have dropped those weights off the Leaning Tower,14 but he did discover the laws of the pendulum, which did provide the world with a better clock. His explanation of what causes the tides15 in the oceans was fallacious, and he did not understand air pressure,16 although a couple of his students invented the mercury barometer shortly after his death. It is also strange that Galileo paid little attention to Kepler's17 discoveries, since they were a definite improvement on the Copernican model. Kepler had problems with the fact that the paths of the planets did not quite fit the Copernican model, and discovered after incredible labors that the orbits are ellipses, not circles as everyone had believed. This was a real improvement in the heliocentric theory but Galileo didn't seem to be interested. Kepler was a devout Protestant, but he had his problems too. When he was persecuted by his fellow professors in a Protestant university, he took refuge with the Jesuits.18

As a final consideration, exactly what was Galileo's punishment? The legendary picture of a tortured genius languishing in a fetid dungeon19 is fallacious. When he was summoned to appear in Rome to answer charges brought against him by the Inquisition, he made his journey assisted by the Grand Duke's personal servants and he was lodged at the Tuscan Embassy. His health was then very poor. When the Church brought him to trial in April of 1633, he was still provided with a five room suite and a personal servant. He was later returned to florence and subject to "house arrest" but, given his physical condition, this may not have restricted his movements too much.


1 Nicholait B. Cheranis, Jaroes B. Parsons, and Conrad E. Ronnenberg, The Study of the Physical World, pp. 253-254.
2 LIoyd A. Brown, The Story of Maps, p. 59.
3 Rooert B. Downs, Books that Changed the World, p. 140.
4 German Arciniegas, Latinoamerica, pp. 112-113.
5 Mary- Wuhelmine Williams, The People and Politics of Latin America, p. 381.
6 Robert H. Baker, An Introduction to Ascronony, pp. 140-141.
7 Frederic Bastiat, Economic Harmonies, p. 9.
8 Guy C. Omer, Harold L. Knowles, Belvey W. Moody, and W. Herbert Yaha, Physical Science: Men and Concepts, p. 139.
9 ibid., p. 137.
10 Cheronis, etc. op. cit., p. 260.
11 Omer, etc., op. cit. p. 139.
12 ibid., p. 151.
13 Cheronis, etc.. ap. cit., p. 259.
14 Omer, etc., op. cit., p. 138.
15 Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, p. 82.
16 James B. Conant, On Understanding Science, pp. 43-49.
17 Butterfleld, ap. cit., p. 83.
18 Ibid., p. 69.
19 Jerome J. Langford, Galileo, Science, and the Church, pp. 137-142.

"Galileo: Martyr for Science?"
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