The fight for truth against the tyranny of stagnant belief

Two great men were born in 1564. One was William Shakespeare in England and the other was Galileo Galieli in Italy.

Galileo became professor of mathematics at Padua in Venice, partially because of his great reputation for invention. He designed and built various instruments in his own workshop, which he then sold, including a thermometer and a slide-rule for which he wrote and published a manual.

Galileo was a short, red haired, attractive man and although remained a bachelor, was never short of lady friends. He was forty-five when he first heard the news of the Flemish invention of the telescope. He immediately designed and built one himself in one night, which had a magnification of three, about as good as an opera-glass. His next attempts were better with magnifications between eight and ten. With these telescopes he was able to see ships two hours of more away from the coast. He made quite a large reputation as well as a fortune by selling them to the government.

But it soon occurred to Galileo that he had more than just an instrument of navigation, he had an instrument of research. He stepped up the magnification to thirty and turned his telescope to the stars, becoming probably the first practical scientist in the process by building the apparatus, performing the experiment and publishing the results. The joys of what he found are best described in his own words from the account in his book ‘Sidereus Nunciu’, (The Starry Messenger):

“..stars in myriads, which have never been seen before, and which surpass the old, previously known, stars in number more than ten times.

“But that which will excite the greatest astonishment by far, and which indeed especially moved me to call the attention of all astronomers and philosophers, is this, namely, that I have discovered four planets, neither known nor observed by any one of the astronomers before my time.”

Galileo had discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter, named after him as the Galilean satellites. He saw correctly that these moons orbited Jupiter as Copernicus has guessed that the planets orbited the sun. He then turned his telescope to the Moon:

“It is a most beautiful and delightful sight to behold the body of the moon…certainly does not possess a smooth and polished surface, but one rough and uneven, and, just like the face of the earth itself, is everywhere full of vast protuberances, deep chasms, and sinuosites.”

These discoveries and others showed conclusively that the Ptolemaic Earth centered heaven did not work and that Copernicus’ postulated sun centered idea had been right.

Galileo made two mistakes. The first was one that many scientists make. He believed that the truth, however disconcerting, was more comforting than being wrong and this led him to be completely open about his discoveries. He invited anyone who wanted to see for themselves the truth, by looking through his telescope, to do just that.

Unfortunately his findings did not please the prejudice of the establishment of the day. Galileo felt that all he had to do was to show everybody that Copernicus was correct and everything would be alright. His second mistake was that he could leave the fairly safe Republic of Venice and return to his native Florence, protected by his incredibly reputation as an inventor and salesman, and now scientist and writer. Sadly this would prove to be fatal.

The Roman Catholic Church had just begun its Counter-Reformation, a reaction against the successful Reformation of the Protestant Church and the Thirty Years War began. Galileo was strangely naive about politics. He felt that he could outwit the Church, which had made the country almost a police state, because he was so clever. But logical thinking and truth were the enemies of Faith and anyone who didn’t agree was, a heretic.

Galileo, however clever he knew he was, could never win. Unbeknown to him, a file had been opened on him in the Secret Archives of the Vatican, back in 1611, before the Counter Reformation of 1618 and long before his eventual trial in 1633, before he even considered going back to Italy. Galileo had been labelled as a trouble-maker as soon as he pointed his telescope to the heavens.

There were ten judges at the trial of Galileo. They were all Cardinals. One was the Pope’s brother and another his nephew. The trial was conducted by the Inquisition. Galileo did not have a copy of the charges against him or the evidence; the rules were not that of a court, but formalised in 1588 to judge ‘against heretical depravity throughout the whole Christian Commonwealth’.

What Galileo had actually done by pointing his telescopes to the sky, discovering craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter and sunspots, was to put an end to the classical belief that the heavens are perfect and unchanging and that only the Earth is subject to change. He had also defended the theory of Copernicus, now long dead, a theory that was not even his own but one which he endorsed because he believed it to be true.

By 1630 Galileo had finished a book that contained all his thoughts on science. His feelings were that the forces in the sky were the same as those on Earth and by performing mechanical experiments on Earth, we can learn about the stars. He found it very difficult to publish the book but by 1632 it was in print in Florence where it was an instant success. Almost immediately Rome attempted to stop the presses and buy back the books which had by then sold out. The Pope was furious at how the book came to be published at all and Galileo, now in his seventieth year, was summoned to Rome to answer for it.

On 12 April 1633, Galileo was brought before the Inquisitor for the last time. He expected to be asked to defend his book, instead he was quizzed about Copernicus’ theory once more.

Back in 1616, Cardinal Bellarmine had given Galileo a certificate which stated that Galileo must not hold or defend Copernicus’ opinion. He was, however, allowed to use it as a hypothesis.

Galileo was tried not for breaking the conditions of that document, but of another which stated he must not teach the ideas ‘in any way whatsoever’. Galileo had not signed such a document and neither had Cardinal Bellarmine, not surprising as the document was a forgery, but under the conditions of the Inquisition, they did not have to produce it. The Holy Office had attempted to dishonour Galileo and show him to have gone against an agreement. Galileo was shown the instruments of torture and confined to his villa, outside Florence, under strict house arrest.

Galileo had one more thing left to do. He wanted to finish his last book, the one which the trial had interrupted. It was a book on the ‘New Sciences’, meaning the physics of matter on Earth, not astronomy. He managed to get it smuggled out to be published in 1638, by which time Galileo was totally blind.

What the trial of Galileo had done was to end science in the mediterranean. The scientific revolution moved to Northern Europe. Also, the Church, by condemning Galileo, had made science strong, strong enough to become completely independent from the Church. It was Rome’s greatest mistake.

In 1979, Pope John-Paul II attempted to pardon Galileo, but the irreparable damage to the Church’s reputation to describe the workings of the Universe had been done, centuries earlier.

Galileo died, still a prisoner in his own house, in 1642. On Christmas Day of that same year, Isaac Newton was born…

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4 comments on “The fight for truth against the tyranny of stagnant belief

  1. Isn’t it funny that the ancient people (mayans, egyptians etc…) had more understanding of the universe than the oh so civilized Christians? Thats humans for ya. One step forward and about 20 steps back.


  2. That’s it. Even within the history of the Church there have been eras that pushed the boundaries and moved humanity on (the invention of the arch being one significant one in the Gothic era – before that (Greeks, Romans, Egyptians) no-one could build the magnificent space of a Cathedral.) Dogma, however, stifles progress and creativity. The Mayans and Aztecs were advanced in geometry and astronomy and yet didn’t get round to inventing the wheel.


  3. “He believed that the truth, however disconcerting, was more comforting than being wrong and this led him to be completely open about his discoveries. He invited anyone who wanted to see for themselves the truth, by looking through his telescope, to do just that.”

    Interesting that this was a “mistake”? In the end, for the rest of us, no. But for his livelihood it was. Does that mean he was wrong to go forth?

    I’m curious: you mentioned this was the mistake of many scientists. Can you give a few more “for instance” cases where the assumption was that we’d be comforted, yet the establishment balked? You’re probably right, but nothing’s coming to my bleary mind right now…


  4. Copernicus & Kepler – that the Earth went round the sun. Others were burnt at the stake for that belief. Newton – that white light could be divided into colours. Einstein – that space was curved and time wasn’t a constant. Obviously in more recent years scientists haven’t faced death or imprisonment for the truth as in earlier centuries, but many have been faced with exclusion. Mind you, the Nazis put a price on Einsteins head 1936 as soon as they came to power. They wanted him to hang. Fortunately he was in the USA at the time and never went back to Germany again.


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