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Lecture 4: Galileo

Galileo Galilei 1564-1642

The story of Galileo is complex, not least because the man was complex. Just when you thought that Galileo had a solid argument for Copernicus' theory, he would bring up an invalid argument about tides that even his supporters found specious. Or when he had carefully separated religion and science, as in his letter to the Grand Duchess, he would suddenly use a religious reason for a scientific theory, tying them back together again. Clearly the man did not have an overriding concern to make a consistent metaphysics, rather he staunchly believed in a theory and was willing to bend all the rules to increase the weight of evidence for the theory. Now why would a supposedly objective, rational, scientist use sloppy metaphysics in support of a particular scientific theory? The embarassing answer one can hear scientists state even today, is "Why not?".

That is, one can read between the lines of many of these men, from Galileo to Gell-Mann and find ambitious, aggressive, even obnoxious men who wanted desperately to succeed, to leave their mark, to change the world. Galileo turned down many offers of safe haven, many admirers who would have happily supported his research in order to make an impact on that center of world influence in the early 17th century, Rome. In the end he failed to change the Catholic church, perhaps as much from political naivete or unfortunate circumstance as from hubris, though one can hardly fault Galileo for trying. After all, Martin Luther didn't succeed either. But perhaps one can fault his motivation for trying.

The lesson I get from Galileo is not the classic church versus science, or even a scientist ahead of his time. He had many natural gifts, and could write eloquently in Italian (I am told) so that he communicated very well to the people of his time the changes he wanted to make. Likewise we too are constantly living with the same tensions today between old and new theories, so that scientists are always ahead of their time. No, the lesson I learn from Galileo is one of scientific hubris. That is, scientific theories have their own life cycle that cannot be rushed (see Kuhn). Galileo fought for Copernican science a little too fiercely, and unwisely drew as many incorrect conclusions as correct. Even today as historian of science, Stephen Brush, points out about Nobel prize winner Hannes Alfven, scientists are much less willing to forgive wrong conclusions than they are to remember right ones. If Galileo had only been a little more relaxed, a little less dogmatic about his "tides proof" or silly arguments over who first saw sunspots and what was the nature of comets, if he had given the field chance to develop, he might have been more successful. But in his rush to prove his theories correct he overstated his case and drew false conclusions, making his sentence by the Church court all the more severe. When the Church, on Oct 31, 1992 pardoned him, they did not so much acknowlege his innocence but the overly severe sentence he received. (See The Galileo Affair)

Dismissing the "conflict" myth that Galileo was persecuted by the Church for being a scientist is relatively easy, which is what nearly all the "science and religion" textbooks aim to prove. Brooks, however, goes one step further to analyze the proposed thesis that the Catholic Church was more resistant to science than the Protestant Church. His conclusion was that there might be a slight propensity for Protestants be more accepting of new scientific theories, but more likely it was politics that got Galileo, and the catholics just had far more of it than the protestants. One could easily make the opposite argument (as Stanley Jaki does), that catholics often are better scientists today because they have more commitment to scientific metaphysics than do protestants. So although the Galileo affair doesn't boil down to a simplistic science vs. Catholic church debate, there are important lessons here that remind me of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", about the line between humility and hubris.

These are personal observations, highly subjective, and greatly influenced by wounds that still smart. I may outgrow these thoughts, but for the record, here is where I vicariously empathize with Galileo. He had a scientist's nose for "good theory", one that is elegant, simple and just "had to be right". But he didn't have a lot of evidence. He hears about a new invention, the telescope, and has to have one. With his new toy, he starts getting lots of really cool pictures. Suddenly that gut feeling about Copernican theory is turning into a gold-mine of supporting data: craters on the moon, spots on the sun, satellites around Jupiter, phases of Venus. A lesser man would take 2 years to write about one of those discoveries, analysing it with every current theory, timidly proposing that it might possibly support a Copernican world view. Galileo immediately sees the importance and impact of the data and is loathe to tiptoe around the egos and institutions invested in the past, he's going for the big tamale, a complete reorganization of world view. As a priest once said to me, "When you're right, and you know you're right, you can't possibly be wrong." It was that religious certainty Galileo had that drove him, like Jesus, to his eventual demise. Should he have been more timid? Was there any other course of action that might have avoided the pain?

Certainly, but one does not achieve greatness, whether it be scientific, political or religious, without confrontation, without principles. And in these confrontations all our weaknesses, all our sins come back to haunt us. It was while coming out of his mistress' hotel room that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. It was in Galileo's trial that his vanity concerning comets and sunspots became the crucial fact in turning his allies into his enemies. For all of you budding scientists who still dream of winning the Nobel prize, my counsel to you is to be totally unswerving in your defense of the truth, but completely deferential in the defense of yourself. Then when you are put on trial, it will be your ideas and not your person that comes under attack. Paradoxically then, it will be those who do not seek the Prize who find it first.

Despite much hype about genius and luck, it is my belief that all the great names in science, be they Newton, Darwin or Einstein, all of them contributed to science not because of their genius, but in spite of it. Never let the obsession of the press with "men of genius" cloud the fact that these men prevailed on the basis of their ideas, not on their personalities.

Last modified, January 17, 2002, RbS