Myths Surrounding Galileo
Lots of myths surround the father of the telescope, except that he wasn’t. That’s a myth. But he did build a good one, and then looked up into space with it.
The problem is that much like the attribution of the invention of the telescope, all sorts of other untruths have been taught about him. As a matter of fact, if there had been no Galileo, atheists would have had to invent him to use as a club against religion and stir up anti-catholic and anti-religious sentiment. Most schools never even teach the fact that the church was at the forefront of scientific inquiry actually funding science and scientists, or that Galileo himself was a very devout man. In fact the leading astronomers of the day were priests.
The war between Galileo and the Church is called the Galileo Myth.
Now Copernicus was also a man of the church, a priest, who postulated that perhaps the Sun did not revolve around the Earth, but that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun. The church really didn’t have a problem with Copernicus saying this because it was only a theory. Copernicus made no claims to absolute fact or truth.
Galileo on the other hand, with the aid of telescope, started teaching the it was the truth that the Earth revolved around the Sun. The church, siding with secular science of the day, went to Galileo and demanded he bring forth his evidence. Just good scientific inquiry and request for peer review. Of course, Galileo had his math and his theories, but not incontrovertible proof. The church requested Galileo not teach it as proven truth until it had been studied further. They asked him not to be hasty. He agreed.
But Galileo didn’t keep his part of the bargain and again started teaching that the Earth revolved around the Sun, as truth. Some other jealous ‘scientists’ finked on him.
The Trial of Galileo Galilei
So Galileo was taken by the Inquisition and imprisoned. At least that is what some textbooks teach and lots of people believe. But no, what happened was that he was asked to come and explain himself, he was housed at the Medici Villa in Rome. A palace. Free of charge. With servants. Also free of charge.
He was tortured. Well there again, no he wasn’t. That’s another myth. He attended parties, and had visitors.
But he was tried and convicted of heresy…right? No again, sorry, he wasn’t. He was charged with teaching his new theory as truth after he had promised not to, for breaking his word. He did so by writing a book in which he satirized the Pope as an imbecile. He certainly knew how to win friends and influence people
At the close of his trial Galileo is recorded as muttering under his breath “And yet it moves…” referring to the Earth. Well here again, no he didn’t. This is a legend started more than century after Galileo’s time.
He was sentenced to house arrest (pretty much for being an irritant, but they could only find him “suspect of heresy”). Heretics were burned at the stake. A house arrest which also allowed him to travel around the city, teach students (which did until he died), write, publish, conduct experiments, and have whatever visitors he wanted.
Galileo was a brilliant, and obstinate man with a big mouth, who thought he knew best and didn’t want to subject his theory to peer review. Yes.
Martyr for science? No.
Tortured and imprisoned for his discoveries? No.
Foot soldier in the war between science and religion? No.
So the next time someone says “I think we should remember what the Church did to Galileo…”, you can set them straight. The Church followed the course good science should take.
After all, truth is better than fiction isn’t it?
Blackwell, R.J. – Galileo, Bellarmine and the Bible. London: University of Notre Dame, 1991.
Dante Aligheri – The Divine Comedy. Trans, Sayers, D.L., and Reynolds, B., 3 vols. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.
Draper, J.W. – History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. London: Kegan Paul, 1890.
Galileo, Galilei – Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Trans, Drake, S. New York: Anchor, 1957.
Langford, J.J. Galileo, Science and the Church. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971.
Moore, P. – Guide to Comets. London: Lutterworth. And A Beginner’s Guide to Astronomy. London: PRC Publishing, 1997.
Sampson, Philip – Six Modern Myths. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000.
Whitehead, A.N. – Science and the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1946.
Galileo’s Inquisition Trial Revisited By Jules Speller