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Galileo’s damage control

The scientist considered prudence the better part of valour while dealing with Papal orthodoxy.

S Ananthanarayanan |

What may be considered a crucial step for humans to become scientific beings was beset by resistance from bigotry. This was when humans, by observation and contemplation, discovered that the Earth moved around the Sun, although the senses showed us to be quite still, while it was the Sun that was in motion. This one step, which emphasised objectivity, in opposition to what was perceived, showed thinking as a way to understand nature and weakened the hold of belief in the supernatural.

The opposition of the church to Galileo, for teaching the heliocentric system of Copernicus, is legendary. The journal, Nature, carries a report that an “original letter —long thought lost —in which Galileo Galilei first set down his arguments against the church’s doctrine that the Sun orbits the Earth has been discovered in a misdated library catalogue in London.” The letter bears corrections, which suggest that Galileo had realised the harm that it was doing and decided to tone down his insistence on a view, not in keeping with Papal approval.

The nature of the cosmos had been first described by Ptolemy, of the second century BCE. Ptolemy placed the Earth at the centre of the universe and the stars in spheres that encircled the Earth. The movement of the planets was accounted for by circles that moved within circles, a complicated picture, but one that served the ends of navigation and the church calendar, after a fashion.

Nicolaus Copernicus was not satisfied with the recourse the theory took to the “caprice” or the “humour” of planets to explain inaccuracies in forecasts. And he committed himself to a lifetime of observation. The data that he collected only revealed more shortcomings in Ptolemaic ideas and finally pointed to the conclusion that the Sun was stationary and the Earth and the planets moved around the Sun in circles.

Copernicus first spent many years in confirming his findings with more observations and tests of events forecast. And then many years before he published his findings, for fear of opposition, from fellow scientists as well as from the church. From scientists because the teachings of Ptolemy had held sway for 15 centuries! And from the church as the Book of Genesis implied the Earth was at the centre.

Copernicus’s book was finally published in 1543. It was not particularly well received and Copernicus’ ideas were even reviled for many decades. Tycho Brahe, of Denmark, who was born in 1546, spent a lifetime, till 1601, in collecting vast and more accurate data. Even when his successor, Johannes Kepler, used the data to prove sophisticated mathematical patterns in planetary motion, there was resistance, and his results, published in the early 1600s, took decades to be accepted.

Galileo, born in 1564, in Pisa, made an early mark as a scientist and became a professor of mathematics in the University of Pisa at the age of 25. This, as also his fine work, was resented by many. He discovered the principle of the pendulum and did important work on the effect of gravity in accelerating falling objects. He had, in fact, discovered the laws of motion, except that mathematics was still not developed for the laws to be put down.

And he discovered the fact that the apparent speed of an object depended on the speed of the observer. This had the dangerous implication, in respect of cosmology, that we could not say the Earth was not in rapid motion simply because we do not feel that we are moving. Those, and other ideas, made things difficult in Pisa and Galieo moved to Padua, where there was greater intellectual freedom.

In the early 1600s, the books of Copernicus became available. And so did the newly invented telescope. Galileo ground his own glass lenses and improved on the current designs. With his own telescope, he made observations of the moon and the planets. What the telescope revealed was literally eye-opening, What Copernicus and Kepler had divined from charts and calculation, Galileo could see. The telescope showed that the planets were globes, and he saw the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter.

At about the same time, Galileo decided to move back from Padua to Pisa. While Padua was in an independent province under Venice, Pisa was subject to the influence of Papal authority. The Catholic Church had created a process called the Inquisition where allegations of beliefs that were contrary to the Bible could be inquired into. The Inquisition launched an enquiry into the utterances and writings of Galileo.

The church, at the time, held that the Bible taught that the Earth was at the centre of creation. Galileo was found to have actively supported and taught the views of Copernicus and the Inquisition held Galileo culpable. It was thanks to his good standing in circles of influence that he was only ordered to desist thereafter from holding or teaching a Sun-centric cosmology. Galileo did lie low for some time, but his conviction, and the belief that the truth did not contradict the Bible, which never intended to make an assertion in astronomy, overcame his prudence and in 1632, he published a satirical work that demolished the Earth-centric model.

That was provocation indeed, and the Inquisition came down heavily. While there are records and conjectures, it is clear that Galileo did not make a fair showing and he was sentenced never to leave the premises of his house. This too was a concession because he had agreed to publically disown the heliocentric theory.

The records of Galileo’s submission to the Inquisition suggest that he tried energetically to defend himself. He repeatedly asked them to look through his telescope and see for themselves, but, it seems, in vain. And there is on record a letter, in very powerful language, clearly of no avail before judges whose minds were made up about what was heresy, and were there only to prove that it had been committed.

There are, however, copies of another letter, in a softened tone, which was believed to be a later version, which Galileo had written with the object of winning over the tribunal. It has been suggested that this was the letter that Galileo wrote and the strident version was a creation of his enemies to show him in a worse light.

The original letter may be in the secret vault of the Vatican and there has only been conjecture. The original of the strongly worded letter had never been found till the remarkable letter in the archives of the Royal Society. A catalogue error in the date of the letter led to its being ignored for 250 years. But it was spotted by a scholar, and yes, it is the original letter, with corrections in Galileo’s own hand, to show that he had himself redone the letter as a measure of damage control.

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