Galileo's crime was ridicule, not science

November 03, 1996

YOUR EDITORIAL of Oct. 26 asserts that Galileo was condemned because he refused to ''recant his teachings that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, as the church had taught.''

This interpretation distorts the historical record by buying into (whether or not consciously) the modern notion that religion stands as a barrier to science and progress.

The conventional interpretation, which parallels the ''Christopher-Columbus-challenging-the-Flat-Earth-Believers''

story, is equally dramatic, compelling and historically inaccurate.

Galileo was not condemned because of the novelty of his science, but because of his inattention to etiquette.

In 1632, Galileo published the "Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems -- Ptolemaic and Copernican," in which an enlightened scientist ridicules the conventional ideas expressed by ''Simplicio.''

Upon reading the book, politically motivated members of Pope Urban VIII's inner circle convinced the pontiff that Galileo intended ''Simplicio'' to be a thinly veiled stand-in for the pope himself. Consequently, the book was placed on the Index and Galileo was called to Rome to stand trial.

This piece of historical trivia is relevant because it challenges the over-simplified view that the Catholic church, by nature, is historically opposed to scientific inquiry.

In fact, the geocentric theory ''taught'' by the church was the scholarly view of that era. It was held by the vast majority of intellectuals and was firmly rooted in Aristotelian mathematics, Ptolemaic astronomy and rational observation.

Furthermore, Galileo initially received encouragement to publish his ideas from none other than Maffeo Barberini (the future Pope Urban VIII). As the chief sponsor of scholarship up through the Renaissance, the Catholic church was not opposed to learning as such. It did, however, resent challenges to its authority, especially, in the age of Luther and Calvin. For these reasons, Galileo was punished.

Nevertheless, the traditional view of Galileo's legacy remains significant. It challenges an individual to view critically the received wisdom of the day -- whether it pertains to science or to religion.

Justin Anderson


Pub Date: 11/03/96

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