Ever Since Galileo, Politics Creates the Truth


December 25, 1992|By LEONARD KOPPETT

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA. — Palo Alto, California -- According to schoolbook an common-culture legend, the Vatican, in 1633, forced Galileo to renounce the theories which put the sun instead of the earth at the center of the universe, presumably because demoting mankind from the central position was contrary to scripture as the church interpreted it. In his moment of humiliation, Galileo is said to have turned aside and muttered, ''eppur se muove,'' which can be translated as ''nevertheless,'' (or ''and yet'' or ''still'') ''it moves,'' meaning the earth.

But it wasn't like that at all.

Man's place in the universe was not at issue. (God's Heaven, not the center, was the most exalted realm). Nor was it a question of what ''scientific'' explanations best fit astronomical and other observations. At stake was authority, pure and simple: Whose interpretation of scripture would hold sway in Christian Europe, the papacy's or some individual's? The Roman Catholic church was resisting the growth of Protestantism. This was a skirmish in that war.

In 1616, Pope Pius V decided to ban the Copernican theory (published in 1543) which placed the sun at the center. The executor and advocate of this policy was Cardinal Bellarmino.

Galileo, already world-famous and on familiar terms with many church and Italian leaders, met with the cardinal on February 26 in Rome. He argued that this serious impediment to science was unnecessary, since church tradition had found no conflict between scripture and science in past rulings. He didn't win theargument, but did get something: The Copernican theories could be used as a ''hypothesis,'' as long as they weren't being presented as a ''reality.''

On March 5, the works of Copernicus went on the Index of prohibited books.

In 1623, a new pope, Urban VIII, was a man Galileo had long known as a good friend and supporter: Cardinal Barberini. Galileo promptly published a new book in which he said, among other things, ''the Book of Nature is written in mathematical characters.'' He dedicated it to the new pope, who received it with approval, tacitly accepting its premise.

The next year, he sought and received permission to write ''non-committally'' about both theories, provided he also said that neither described ''reality'' because God, in his omnipotence and wisdom, could have arranged the same results in other ways humans could not imagine.

But he wrote it too well.

In this ''Dialogue on Two Chief World Systems,'' published in 1632, the old (geocentric) view was thoroughly demolished in lop-sided exchanges. The old view's advocate was named ''Simplicio.'' And it was in Italian, not Latin, and soon translated throughout Europe.

The Academic establishment of the time had been fighting Galileo for decades. Their basic Aristotelian views (use logic to derive laws from limited observation) was being contradicted and destroyed by Galileo's new methods: observe, quantify, calculate, check results against more observations and experiments, and accept results over inherited ''authorities.''

The establishment used the new book against him. They said Simplicio was being taken as an insulting caricature of Pope Urban himself, and he agreed. The Jesuits said it had ''worse consequences than Luther and Calvin put together.''

Galileo, now 69, was called before the Inquisition. A document was produced in which he had promised never to ''hold or defend'' Copernican ideas again, supposedly signed in his 1616 meeting with Bellarmino. He was found guilty on June 22, 1633, required to recant publicly and to live henceforth in a form of house arrest. He died in 1642, at 77.

Two centuries later, in 1835, Copernicus was removed from the Index. In 1877, the Galileo file was opened and showed that the 1616 document had been planted. In 1965, after the 400th anniversary of Galileo's birth, Pope Paul VI praised him, but unofficially. Now the record is complete: the condemnation issued in 1633 has been removed.

So the real issues weren't scientific validity (or freedom), or the nature of scriptural belief. It was a power struggle, pure and simple, on the one hand against a new way of thought that disrupted the vested interests of the Academic establishment, on the other between Catholics and Protestants. Galileo, caught in the middle of both conflicts, offended both groups by making his arguments too strong, too cleverly. Precisely because they were irrefutable, the established powers had to try to refute them.

It wasn't what he said -- that the earth moves -- that made trouble. It was the way he said it, offending whom, at what specific time in political history.

Today, our disputes about how to spend billions of dollars on a space program, a supercollider, AIDS research, other medical research, genetic engineering and other ostensibly scientific programs, also are being really decided on the basis of political muscle, in and out of Congress, rather than on scientific -- or even humanistic -- merits.

Meanwhile, concepts about God are popping up in cosmology, reviving Aristotelian emphasis on theorizing from sketchy data while brushing aside contradictions -- with careers and jobs at stake. And this process (Aristotelianism) has more immediate and dangerous consequences for all of us when it is applied to economics, ecology and population control.

Galileo's trial, therefore, symbolizes the subjugation of data to current political purpose. We should not flatter, or deceive, ourselves that our time is more ''advanced.'' Even today, it's not the quality of the science you do that determines whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

Leonard Koppett is editor emeritus of the Peninsula Times Tribune.

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