On this day in 1642 . . .

Galileo before the Holy Office, Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

. . . the great physicist, applied mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei passed from this world into the annals of history, having spent the last ten of his 77 years on Earth under house arrest for the crime of telling the truth.

More specifically, for asserting that the movements of heavenly bodies he had deduced from his own and others’ empirical observations were true despite the fact that they conflicted with the official doctrine of the Church – which is to say, also, with the official doctrine of the state at that time. For this assertion he was tried by the Inquisition and found “vehemently suspect of heresy.” (though it appears that his being a pain about it and making his former buddy the Pope look dumb also played a part in this outcome).

Galileo’s words to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615 on this topic should provide inspiration and a lesson to all of us who get sucked in (which, in reality, means every citizen) to the struggle between the science of what is and the powerful interests that find those facts inconvenient:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

History has of course vindicated Galileo, whom Einstein and Stephen Hawking have both referred to as the father of science. It was not until 1835 that the Church dropped all mention of Galileo’s offending works from its index of prohibited works, and not until 1992 (350 years later!) that Pope John Paul II issued a declaration acknowledging that the tribunal that judged Galileo had been wrong. Old habits, indeed, die hard.

And so, to you, Granddaddy of science, we say: Rock on!

3 Responses to “On this day in 1642 . . .”

  1. Kerry says:

    There’s a great review in the current New Yorker by Adam Gopnick of a new book by Cullen McCarthy on the Spanish Inquisition, which reached into Italy and to Gallileo. McCarthy and Gopnick argue that the spirit of the Inquisition, the suspicious certainty and arrogant rationalizations of brutality by the powerful, never entirely ended, and parallels are specifically drawn to Cheney and Guantanamo. (Read, for example, recent op-eds in the New York Times by two of the falsely accused who were imprisoned there.) This is certainly tempting to believe in our sphere as well when one considers the spread of vicious and scurrilous attacks on scientists, especially climate scientists like Michael Mann. Our protection, Gopnick says, is the sufficiently continued adherence in society to the Enlightenment values that have proven to outlast inquisitions.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Excellent points Kerry – I will look for the article. We need candidates stumping for “enlightenment values” just as some have done (often cynically) for “family values”. Although enlightenment values are our protection in principle, a lot of damage can be done if it takes 350 years for those values to shine through!

  3. Kerry says:

    Correcting my mistake: Cullen Murphy, not McCarthy. Here’s a link to a related article in the Atlantic, where he’s an editor:


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