Everything you know is wrong (I)

I thought about entitling this post “Everything I know is wrong” but that seemed to invite your disinterest in reading further. Every once in a while, you learn something new about a topic you thought you knew all about. I will occasionally post about my experiences of “being totally wrong” (I have had many!). This first post involves a famous historical figure: Galileo Galilei.

Some years back at work, I received a professional recognition called “the Galileo Award for Innovation.” In preparing to accept the award, I decided to do a little extra research on Galileo, to use in a short acceptance speech. I thought I knew the story well; we all do, right? Galileo was a brilliant 17th century scientist who proved that the sun did not revolve around the earth. This upset the Catholic Church, which tried him for heresy, tortured and imprisoned him, forcing him to recant his beliefs. Science eventually proved him right, and Galileo is remembered as a martyr for truth and reason against religious dogma.

There are excellent historical records on the entire affair, and they tell a more nuanced story. Galileo was both brilliant and irascible, with a unique ability to anger both friends and enemies with his sharp tongue. Ever notice how exceptional genius is oftentimes accompanied by an exceptional lack of tact? That was Galileo.

Copernicus proposed the theory of heliocentrism in 1543 in a book dedicated to the then-Pope Paul III. Kepler expanded on Copernicus’ work in 1606, ten years before Galileo published his first work arguing for it. Much of this work was financed by the Church, and the Church expressed no objection to it, as long as heliocentrism was posited as a scientific theory. However, the scientific establishment was vehemently opposed to it; to borrow a phrase, geocentrism was settled science. Scientists who had spent entire careers explaining geocentrism were not going to throw away a life’s work, even if heliocentrism did a simpler job explaining observed planetary motion. Furthermore, some of Galileo’s theory required space to be almost infinitely large (it was, but no one at the time could prove it), and that our sun was the center of the entire universe (it wasn’t, but no one could determine this with the instruments available at the time).

In 1616, some of Galileo’s scientific opponents reported him to the Church for heresy, since (in the scientists’ opinion) his views contradicted language in the Bible. Galileo responded that since he was correct, the Church needed to interpret the Bible to conform with his views. This all happened in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, where the question of who gets to authoritatively interpret Scripture was a cause of actual war. The Holy Office (the “Inquisition”) forbid any attempt to interpret Scripture to support heliocentrism. At the Pope’s request, Cardinal Bellarmine met with Galileo and made this agreement: Galileo was to stop making claims about how the Bible should be interpreted; he was free to write about heliocentrism as long as he described it as a scientific theory and gave other theories their due. For the next seven years, Galileo complied with this agreement.

In 1623, Galileo caught a huge break: his old friend and patron Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VII, who now asked him to write a work explaining the case for and against heliocentrism. The Pope cautioned Galileo to be fair to all sides. Galileo sensed his opportunity to win the argument once and for all, but also to settle old scores. His resulting work Dialogue on the Two World Systems was a masterful repudiation of geocentrism and argument for heliocentrism, employing a series of discussions between a brilliant scientist, an impartial scholar, and a foolish philosopher named Simplicio. While he presented both theories, Dialogues clearly favored heliocentrism, and Galileo voiced the Pope’s views in the character of Simplicio, mocking him in the process.

Having antagonized his chief benefactor, Galileo was now referred for trial by the Inquisition for having broken his vow not to publicly espouse heliocentrism. In a one day trial (without any torture) Galileo confessed that he had broken his vow, although he continued to contend that he did not hold to heliocentrism (which was not the charge against him). He was sentenced to a day in jail and afterward house arrest, daily penance, and to observe his previous agreement. The Holy Office forbid arguments supporting heliocentrism for over a century. Three-hundred and fifty years later, then-Pope John Paul II apologized for the Church’s treatment of Galileo.

The real Galileo story is a cautionary tale on many levels. The Church let itself get needlessly dragged into a scientific controversy, and then let pride play a role in how it meted out justice. Galileo was brilliant but could not overcome his own ego. He never proved heliocentrism; that would take until the 18th century, and his views on our sun as the center of the universe ultimately were wrong. Scientists are people, and the pursuit of truth in science is just as petty and messy as anywhere else. This last thought led me to a very influential work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which details just how hard it is to change mindsets, especially scientific ones.

Sorry for the length of this post; getting to the bottom of things sometimes takes space and time (perhaps not 350 years!).

3 thoughts on “Everything you know is wrong (I)”

  1. Pat: length is fine. Nice exposition of a complex piece of history. Am also a huge fan of Kuhn’s book/still have the copy I marked up as an undergraduate back in the Dark Ages. Also recommend Jacob Bronowski’s “The Common Sense of Science” and “The Ascent of Man.” They are both pithy jewels.

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