What is interesting to note is that Galileo’s arguments and a couple of monumental blunders by over-zealous fanatics ensured that Galileo’s ideas would become a scientific milestone that interested everyone, rather than yet another inaccessible academic tome ignored by students.
I am fascinated by the spirit of Galileo Galilei. Much of what he did was ordinary genius: calculating the parabolic flight of an arrow, the constant amount of time a pendulum takes to swing along any given arc and work on the strength of materials. He did not actually discover that the earth orbited the sun, merely confirmed, with observations and reason, the belief of Copernicus. He didn’t invent the telescope, just improved a Dutch prototype. And the jury is out on whether the experiments at the Leaning Tower of Pisa actually happened, as they are described.
So why is it that the name of Galileo resonates through my thought?
From a very young age we are taught that certain truths are self-evident and fixed. Once we have learned to recite them well enough to pass muster in first grade, that’s what we are expected to believe. Some of these ideas have distinct merit, for instance not killing, not stealing and not coveting your neighbour’s livestock. Others are the sort of ideas that become roadkill on history’s autobahn. “Repeat after me class: margarine and artificial sweeteners are every family’s friend.”
Any attempts to question these truths are brushed aside or answered with half-baked platitudes that usually lead to some form of experimentation in order to determine the truth. If not, why do I, and so many of my friends, still smoke?
Hidden in this proposition is the answer to why Galileo is so well remembered.
In the second decade of the early Sixteenth century the Copernican idea that the earth orbited the sun, and not vice versa, stirred up the sort of frenzied theological storm that would leave the present-day religious right gasping with admiration and fervent religious ecstasy.
In the 1620’s, Galileo, displaying all the naivety of a well-meaning scientist, absent-mindedly published a book on tides, proving and stating that the Copernican world-view was ‘probable’. This did not cause a scandal, and with a modification of the title, it was published with the approval of some less than zealous Roman Catholic censors. Only then did the fun begin.
When the Inquisition picked up on the pro-Copernican slant, they promptly summoned Galileo to Rome to answer charges of “grave suspicions of heresy”. Much has been written about the spirited and reasoned arguments that Galileo used to defend scientific method, however he finally abjured, settling for a life sentence that was commuted to house arrest, rather than the very real prospect of going out in a blaze of glory with painful martyrdom at the stake.
To compound the comedy, the Church banned his book and guaranteed the interest of all by reading the ban in every university. Suffice to say, his now banned writings gained credibility almost immediately and went on to form the nucleus of modern physics. In fact, Isaac Newton credited him with the discovery of inertial motion.
You will probably be relieved to read that I’m not going to go into the matter of his moral dilemma. It’s history, and you can find out about it on the web. What is interesting to note is that Galileo’s arguments and a couple of monumental blunders by over-zealous fanatics ensured that Galileo’s ideas would become a scientific milestone that interested everyone, rather than yet another inaccessible academic tome ignored by students.
The principle still holds true. If you want an audience for your idea, just make sure that someone in a position of power attempts to suppress it. There’s no need to defend it to the death. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ is almost impossible to read, yet thanks to a fatwah it quickly made the bestseller list, though it is still probably not the most widely read book. And nobody gave UFOs any serious thought until Governments started denying their existence.
So what happened to Galileo’s banned writings? By October 1992, the findings of a Papal commission acknowledged the error of Church officials in the matter. There’s no need to rush out and get an illicit copy.