Moving the Earth: The Legacy of Galileo

MARCH / APRIL 2017: BY RACHEL SEXTON

Often, it can feel like science and religion are mutually exclusive and always at opposition with each other. Religion depends on interpretation of texts like the Bible that advances in science can sometimes prove wrong. The Renaissance was a period of tremendous progress in multiple areas of human endeavor, and science was one of them. Religion was an institution central to society, so it’s no surprise that one of the most well-known examples of a situation with science and religion at odds occurred during this era: the trial of Galileo Galilei. Galileo’s experience with the Catholic Church remains a relevant topic in the broader discussion of religion versus science.

Galileo was born on February 15, 1564 in Pisa, Italy. He studied medicine at the University of Pisa but soon convinced his father to allow him to follow his interest in mathematics. Galileo attracted notice among scholars when he invented a hydrostatic balance. He studied other scientific disciplines and art, and later taught mathematics and astronomy. One of the many contributions he made was pioneering the telescope. In his personal life, Galileo had three children, Virginia, Livia, and Vincenzo, with his mistress, and his patron was the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de Medici (yes, of the Medicis).

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The dramatic interaction between Galileo and the Catholic Church is called the “Galileo Affair.” In 1610, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius (or Starry Messenger), a work that revealed observations he had made with the new telescope. These included the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter. This work supported the theory put forth by Nicolaus Copernicus called heliocentrism that placed the Sun at the center of the universe with the planets orbiting around it. The Church vehemently opposed the idea, because it contradicts certain Biblical passages, if you take them literally. The Roman Inquisition realized this work by 1615, and in February 1616, ordered Galileo not to “hold, teach, or defend” heliocentrism in any way.

For the next decade, Galileo avoided the controversy, but in 1632, he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and this work again ignited the ire of the Church. Pope Urban VIII had asked Galileo to include his own views on the order of the universe in the book but Galileo made his allegiances clear by putting the arguments against heliocentrism into the mouth of a character called Simplicio. The Church banned Dialogue, put Galileo on trial for heresy in 1633, found him guilty, and ordered him to renounce heliocentrism and face imprisonment, but commuted it to house arrest the next day. He stayed in that punishment until his death in 1642.

The interaction between religion and science exemplified in the experience of Galileo Galilei has an antagonistic tone but is an important point of discussion. Even though we now know Galileo was correct, the situation wasn’t so cut and dry as to claim Galileo was completely good and the Church completely bad. Galileo was a pious Roman Catholic, and you could say that at the time science was faith. When a scientist like Galileo saw something no one had ever seen before and their intelligence and instinct led them to a conclusion, they were taking a chance, believing in something without wide acceptance of it as fact. The first followers of a religion can probably relate.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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