Hey, Don't Disrespect Galileo!
    By Enrico Uva | September 26th 2011 04:11 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    A recent article about Galileo in io9 makes the tiresome and unoriginal argument that if Galileo had been a little more tactful, his former friend, who later became Pope, would have continued to tolerate Galileo's heliocentric views. The article is entitled "Did Galileo get in trouble for being right, or for being a jerk about it?" Two years ago an article in Discovery magazine made a similar point, also by using the "jerk" word.
    But what you have to understand that one reason we celebrate Galileo’s contributions is because Galileo was very good at self-promotion. He published his drawings, while Harriot did not. Of course, Galileo’s self-image is what got him into so much trouble later in life. He went way out of his way to insult the Pope and the Church, and was pretty much a huge jerk about it.
    In the same way that it's nonsense to tear down effective politicians for infidelity, it does not do the world any good to take shots at the icons of science. If he was an untactful, self-promoting white European male, so what? He may not have been the inventor of the telescope and maybe not the very first to aim it at the moon, but he was the first to make extraordinary use of the instrument by noticing that four little moons were circling Jupiter and not our presumed center of the universe. His mind was analytic and creative enough to think of projectile motion has having a gravity-affected vertical component and a constant horizontal motion. Despite his unsuccessful attempt to disguise his friend's (and who knows who else's?) Aristotelian arguments with the "Simplicio" character in his dialogues, they still involved brilliant thought experiments such as:

    Imagine two objects, one light and one heavier than the other one, are connected to each other by a string. Drop this system of objects from the top of a tower. If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter object retards the fall of the heavier object. But the system considered as a whole is heavier than the heavy object alone, and therefore should fall faster. This contradiction leads one to conclude the assumption is false. Wiki
    The io9 author concludes by writing,

    The Pope, still smarting, resisted all efforts to end Galileo's house arrest, even towards the end of the man's life. He also demanded a public renunciation, during which he probably smiled and muttered, "Who's Simplicio now?
    Nice try, but I still sympathize with a nearly blind and brilliant guy who was at the mercy of a vain leader of a tyrannical organization.


    There's no article in modern times unless someone takes the contrarian stand, though.  I never bought the oppressed Galileo as much as some did, mostly because I am older and never saw the church as being a two-dimensional caricature the way some young people in science do.   

    Sure, there is a bit of tyrant in how he was treated, but there was some tyranny in how scientists were treated in 2006 too.
    never saw the church as being a two-dimensional caricature the way some young people in science do.  
    I've had a Catholic upbringing, and I have nothing against the basic principles, but the organization itself is, and has been a one-dimensional caricature. It's not to take everyone down; there are plenty of devoted nuns and priests who are genuinely good people. Ethics aside, some even love science.

    But the hierarchy, control mechanism, anti birth-control stance and celibacy policy within the Catholic Church is anti-Christian.

    On that note, even though it never happened to me, I'll never forget the nun at my daycare who whacked one of my 5 year old peers on the head with a ladle simply because he had talked at the dinner table....or the time they locked me in a closet because I had a fever! Luckily, my parents were smart enough to pull me out of there after a week!

    2006? Can you elaborate?
    When Al Gore's global warming movie came out, actual hurricane experts corrected his notion that Hurricane Katrina was caused by global warming and, for their trouble in standing up for accuracy and clean science, they were vilified, email bombed, threatened and had their universities pillaged with phone calls to have them fired - but they were right.

    So a church does not create fundamentalism, it just reflects it.  Blaming a church for Galileo is like blaming a spoon for making Rosie O'Donnell fat.
    In my teenage years, one’s view of Galileo was more or less determined by Bertold Brecht and his play Life of Galileo.  This was written by someone for whom the politics was supreme.

    My view of things was changed about ten years ago through reading two books:

    Physics for Poets by Robert March, which introduced me to the fact that despite the publication ban, Galileo published his Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences (Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze) in 1638 in Holland, outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.  (I’ve kept the Wikipedia link to Holland, because it refers to the publishers Elsevier, who have brought some of my polymer scribblings to the world’s attention.)

    This introduced me to Galileo’s mechanics, which may well be his much greater contribution to science.  Physics and Mathematics have long been like a quarrelsome marriage, and it was Galileo who held the shotgun at the wedding.

    Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever by Hal Hellman, which showed me how impolitic Galileo had been when publishing in 1632 hisDialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondo).  It was Sascha’s dialogues that brought to me the terminology, that while Galileo himself was speaking through Salviati, Sagredo was his sockpuppet and Simplicio his strawman.

    Alas, with certain young people another artist has skewed the pitch.  Whenever one mentions the great man to them, they start singing “Galileo” from “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Alas, with certain young people another artist has skewed the pitch. Whenever one mentions the great man to them, they start singing “Galileo” from “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.
    When culture grabs you, it never lets go.  Poor William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, probably never said, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now" but it's the only way most people know him, usually when they contend they can overturn some law of thermodynamics or another.