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Galileo again

18 November 2012, 19:31

There is the conception, highly misinformed and not at all properly researched, that religion, in particularly Christianity, has been holding back the pursuit of science right throughout history, and Galileo is presented as proof of this. This happened last week on a column on this forum, and has to be addressed.

The Roman Catholic Church has been responsible for many awful things throughout history, but we tend to tar them with a brush far broader than they deserve.

In 711 AD, the Moors invaded Spain and the whole of Europe came under the threat of the Islamic armies.

Spain finally succeeded in evicting the Moors from Spain in the mid-1300s, but their influence remained for a long time afterwards, as evinced by the architecture in Southern Spain.

In order to remain in Spain, many Muslims pretended to be Christian and the first Inquisition was launched in the twelfth century.

This was not, as is commonly believed, a tool to get Jews to confess under torture and then kill them.

The Jews were left largely untouched by the first Inquisition.

This Inquisition was launched in order to drive the last of the Muslim invaders from Spain, after a long and bloody war which Spain had nearly lost. Portugal was, in those times, allied closely with Spain in their war against the invaders.

The Inquisitors were tasked only to get the fake Christians to confess and, of course, they overstepped their authority in many instances and innocent people died.

(Salomon, H.P and Sasson, I.S.D, in Saraive, Antonio Jose. The Marrano Factory. The Portuguese Inquisition and its New Christians, 1536-1765 [Brill 2001] Introduction pp.XXX)

Subsequent Inquisitions, including the Italian Inquisition, launched in 1542, followed the same cumbersome and ineffectual route until Pope Paul III put official structures in place, as a means of cleansing the church.

In 1252, Pope Pius VI condoned the official use of torture and it was used to great effect to strike terror into the populace. However, in 1227, it was Pope Gregory IX who placed the Dominicans in charge of the entire edifice.

Tomas de Torquemada was the first Grand Inquisitor and instilled practises that were in use until the late seventeenth century, when Napoleon outlawed it. It was without a doubt, one of the most terrible times in human history

(Lea. Henry Charles. A History of the Inquisition in Spain, Vol. 1, Appendix 2)

Of the 125 000 people tried by the Inquisitors, over a period five hundred years, approximately six thousand were put to death.

This is utterly inexcusable, of course, but the figures being bandied about are patently ridiculous.

A further ten thousand died in prison, as a result of filthy conditions within the prisons. It still does not begin to approach the figures being quoted by people who have researched the wrong places, or done no research at all.

Moving on to the subject of the church stifling the development of science, the one example always quoted is that of Galileo Galilei.

He was born in Pisa on 15th February 1564, the oldest of seven children. His father, a wealthy merchant, wanted him to study medicine and enrolled him at the Jesuit Monastery at the age of eleven.

While there, he decided to devote his life to the church and his father withdrew him from the monastery and, in 1581, enrolled him at the University of Pisa.

When he was twenty, he noticed a lamp swinging in a cathedral and timed the swings from side to side and used his pulse to time the large and small swings. He realised the period of each swing was exactly the same. He discovered the Law of the Pendulum, which would give clockmakers an accurate way of keeping time.

Galileo was a brilliant mathematician and earned a living tutoring mathematics. He started doing his work on mass and volume, using displacement of water as his method of determining mass.

At the time that Galileo arrived at the University, some debate had started up on one of Aristotle's ‘laws’ of nature, that heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. Aristotle's word had been accepted as gospel truth, and there had been few attempts to actually test Aristotle's conclusions by actually conducting an experiment!

According to legend, Galileo decided to try. He needed to be able to drop the objects from a great height.

The perfect building was right at hand--the Leaning Tower of Pisa, 54 metres tall. Galileo climbed up to the top of the building carrying a variety of balls of varying size and weight, and dumped them off of the top.

They all landed at the base of the building at the same time (legend says that the demonstration was witnessed by a huge crowd of students and professors). Aristotle was wrong.

Galileo started inventing in order to make money. His first invention, a rudimentary thermometer (which, for the first time, allowed temperature variations to be measured) and an ingenious device to raise water from aquifers found no market. He found greater success in 1596 with a military compass that could be used to accurately aim cannonballs.

A modified civilian version that could be used for land surveying came out in 1597, and ended up earning a fair amount of money for Galileo. It helped his profit margin that (a) the instruments were sold for three times the cost of manufacture, (b) he also offered classes on how to use the instrument, and (c) the actual toolmaker was paid dirt-poor wages.

A good thing it was too. Galileo needed the money to support his siblings, his mistress (a 21 year old with a reputation as a woman of easy habits), and his three children (two daughters and a boy).

By 1602, Galileo's name was famous enough to help bring in students to the University, where Galileo was busily experimenting with magnets.

His contributions to astronomy included the discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter and the observation and analysis of sunspots.

Heliocentrism was what he was remembered for more than anything else and it was extremely controversial, as geocentrism was the accepted scientific theory at the time.

He was vehemently opposed by astronomers at the time, who had never observed heliocentrism due to the absence of an observed stellar parallax.

The matter was investigated by the Italian Inquisition, and it was concluded that it could be supported as a theory, not an established fact. When Galileo defended his views in ‘Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems’ he seemed to be attacking Pope Urban VIII, which also alienated the Jesuits, who had been supportive of him up to this point.

He was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty of heresy, and sentenced to house arrest. It was while thus incarcerated that he wrote ‘Two New Sciences’ on the work he had done forty years earlier. These two new sciences were kinematics and strength of materials.

Because of the resistance of the church, Galileo managed to get this book published in Christian, Protestant Holland.

The important thing to remember is that Galileo wrote ‘Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems’ as a dialogue, and Pope Urban VIII came across as a fool, which was not Galileo’s intention, but was the end result.

The Pope was his friend and sponsor in his work and remained on friendly terms with him, which explains the house arrest.

The thing to notice here is that it was not the church that was so canted against Galileo and heliocentrism, but his peers, which was the reason it could only be put forth as a theory.

No-one likes being made to look foolish, especially the powerful, and there was no-one more powerful in those times than the pope. So if you think about it, in those terms, Galileo got off lightly, and still managed to perform other, equally important work.

Here endeth the lesson.

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