An earlier version of this article was published in 2017.
As many will know, Galileo Galilei he was one of the most important scholars of the day. A period in which science, which had advanced by leaps and bounds with the Reformation, was in a small stage of creative break due to the firmness with which the Catholic Church was, Counter-Reformation through, blocking intellectual advance, especially in Europe, that could jeopardize his vision of religion as a source of knowledge.
Within this context, Galileo was a brilliant mind as well as a man with the strongest personality. He was narcissistic, self-centered and could not bear the ignorant who did not defend scientific ideas. But he was also a genius.
Among his most important first actions, he boosted a new flamenco gadget that was causing a sensation in the Venice market, a lens that magnified the vision even to see perfectly the people on the ships at sea from the roofs of the city’s campaniles. Galileo saw their potential and added many more magnifications to these telescopes in 1609. He created the first telescope and began to see things that no one could ever imagine.
He saw the stars, much larger than people believed. He looked closely at the surface of the moon, the planets, and even discovered some new ones that scholars of all previous ages had not been able to contemplate. And he also saw the planets spin. He realized that the orbits were not the system of spheres like the one that Giovanni Dondi of Padua had reproduced. Nor were the rotations round, as had been thought, but elliptical.
And above all, he saw that Copernicus had been right and Aristotle, Ptolemy and the Bible were completely wrong.
Of the end of heliocentrism and the scientific method
Yes, it is the Earth that bends under the force of the sun. The world is not the center of the universe but one more, peripheral, tiny part of creation. All this he discovered thanks to his other great contribution to history: the scientific method. For him, the telescope was a research tool, not just navigation.
He thought beyond his specific situation and realized that it is through the tools with which reality data is recorded that we must make theories about what surrounds us. From then on, what is valid in science is the experimentation and the results. The first work done entirely under the precepts of the scientific method was published in 1610: The sidereal messenger. The book was a sensation for everyone. For everyone except the Church. In 1613 they began to take notes.
In February 1616 the Vatican summoned him. They warned him that they were not at all in agreement with his ideas and warned him that he was forbidden to defend the Copernican system of the world. Galileo was a good Christian, a believer in Catholic precepts, but he did not understand how they did not accept that the Bible had long been a source of metaphorical and not literal wisdom.
For him science was nothing more than the natural laws under which God manifested his creation. But the inquisitors believed that such a precept violated God’s right to miraculously operate the universe. Galileo did not convince to the religious and had to accept their order. And the scientist thought to himself, without telling his censors: “Okay, I won’t write about my scientific theories about how the world revolves around the sun. But you haven’t told me anything that I can’t publish fiction.”
And that’s what he did. In 1630 he began to write Dialogue on the two greatest systems in the world.
It was difficult for him to publish it (to be able to print a document you had to have an imprimatur, a license of the time that had the approval of Catholics not to make errors of Catholic doctrine and morals), but somehow he managed to bypass the censors. A lot of copies came out of the printing presses in 1632 and were sold out instantly due to the sensation they caused, but the Church urgently ordered everything to stop and demanded to recover all the copies sold.
To leave the Pope as a fool or “Simplicio”
His book used the Platonic dialogue model: a dialogue between two characters, Simplicio and Salviati, who respectively defend the Aristotelian and Copernican systems, while Sagredo, the third character in the book, acts as the moderator of the conversation. Salviati is the voice of scientific reason, and the interventions of Simplicio, the defender of the Catholic tradition, portrayed him as a fool. It is quite possible that the Pope believed that Simplicio was a caricature of him, but we will never know if that was entirely true.
Catholics were outraged, as if Galileo had tricked them into playing a ploy on them. They felt that their censors, the ones who should have stopped the publication of the book, had abandoned them. And they were furious.
Galileo already knew that he should prepare for the trial of the inquisitors, but he thought he had justice on his side. For him, the paper that they had made him sign said that he was forbidden to defend the Copernicus theory, that is, to recognize that heliocentrism was a proven matter in fact.
The trials of the Inquisition are not what we might exactly call fair. The rights of the accused were considerably more limited than they are now. And the part of the indictment said that there was a document that prohibited Galileo from teaching the Copernican doctrine “in any way possible”, including “a discussion, a speculation or a hypothesis”, the tricky twist by which Galileo had published all this in their Dialogues.
His trial was in camera under ten judges of the Church, but everything that was said there was collected in a document in Latin that would later be public for the rest of the members of the Catholic institution. Y there was expectation. Not everyone was against Galileo’s theory (indeed, in several European universities that Copernican vision was already being taught alongside the Christian one), but above all, they wanted to know how the trial was resolved.
The document that the judges wielded was not signed by Cardinal Berlamino, the one who made the accusation, nor by any witness, it had not been reviewed under a notary and of course it did not have the signature of Galileo himself, who did not recognize the document. The Church had to stoop to using more than questionable evidence to condemn Galileo without the public reproaching despotism. And, more importantly, to be able to include a book that, remember, had passed the previous glance of the censors, in the list of Forbidden Books.
Which ended up on that list, by the way, for more than 200 years.
Galileo knew exactly what the torture of the Inquisition meant, so it didn’t take him a day to agree to sign the document incriminating himself as a heretic. The document showed how Galileo denied his research not to write or say anything “that could cause the slightest suspicion about me.” They sentenced him for the rest of his life to house arrest at his house in the town of Arcetri.
In essence, what this caused is that Galileo, who was then 70 years old, did not publish anything else until the end of his days. But in that final work he would write everything that the Catholic process had interrupted. The volume was called Two New Sciences, and it talked about everything he knew about physics, the burgeoning scientific subject that over the next century would develop to an incredible level with Isaac Newton.
Galileo finished the book almost three years after the trial, aged 72 and half blind. They printed it two years later. The persecution and discredit of this wise man was a delay for the scientific progress of the Mediterranean that would move scientific production to northern Europe, where Protestants were much more permissive. They say that Galileo saw the first printed copy of Two New Sciences, the book into which he had poured the knowledge of a lifetime, on his deathbed.