Italian astronomer-physicist Galileo Galilei had a torrid time in the 1630s – he was in poor health, faced a house arrest and a trial due to a controversial book and also had to undergo quarantine for almost a month because of the raging plague then, recounts a new book.
‘Galileo and the Science Deniers’ is a historical biography on the life of Galileo by astrophysicist Mario Livio which gives a glimpse into the life of a “man who was intellectually radical and well ahead of his time”.
Galileo’s journey as a scientist started in 1583, when he dropped out of medical school and began to study mathematics. By 1590, he already had the audacity to criticise Aristotle’s teachings on motion, according to which things moved because of a built-in impetus.
About 13 years later, following a series of ingenious experiments with inclined planes and pendulums, he formulated the very first “laws of motion” concerning free-fall, even though he would not publish those until 1638.
But Galileo’s several bold statements put him on a collision course with the Catholic Church and he was eventually pronounced “vehemently suspected of heresy” on June 22, 1633.
“Overall, if we examine the record of Galileo’s life in terms of his personal contentment, it traces something like an inverted-U shape, with a pronounced peak somewhere shortly after his numerous astronomical discoveries, followed by a fairly steep fall,” writes Livio.
In spite of his personal disagreements with some orthodox church dicta, as late as May 18, 1630, Galileo was still received in Rome as an honoured guest by Pope Urban VIII, and he left Rome under the impression that the Pope had approved the printing of his book “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems”, after only a few minor corrections and a change of title.
Overestimating the strength of his friendship with the Pope and underestimating the fragility of the delicate psychological and political position of the Pope at that turbulent post-Reformation era, Galileo continued to believe that reason would prevail, says Livio.
“In the preface to the book Galileo purported to discuss the Earth’s motion merely as a ‘mathematical caprice’, the text itself had a very different flavour. In fact, Galileo taunted and derided those who still refused to accept the Copernican view in which the Earth revolved around the Sun,” the book, published by Simon & Schuster, says.
For Galileo, however, the publication of the “Dialogo” (as the book is commonly referred to), marked the beginning of the end (of his life, not of his fame), says Livio.
“He was examined by the inquisition in 1633, pronounced a suspected heretic, forced to recant his Copernican ideas, and eventually placed under house arrest. The ‘Dialogo’ was put on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books, where it remained until 1835,” he writes.
Left with no option despite his failing health, “Galileo departed for Rome on January 20, 1633, but because of the raging plague, he had to be quarantined before crossing from Tuscany into the Papal States, a stop which turned out to be painfully long and unpleasant”, he says.
“Consequently, he arrived to Rome only on February 12th, fortunately to the comfort and warm hospitality in the home of Tuscan Ambassador Francesco Niccolini and his wife.” After meeting with a few Church officials for advice in the first few days, in the following weeks, Galileo barely left the house, since Cardinal Francesco Barberini advised him against socialising, for fear that it ‘could cause harm and prejudice’, Livio writes.
And then he faced trial. Galileo died in 1642 at his villa in Arcetri near Florence, after having been blind and bed-ridden for a while.
Livio says Galileo’s story may be more relevant today than ever before.
“At present, we face enormous crises – such as the minimisation of the dangers of climate change -because the science behind these threats is erroneously questioned or ignored. Galileo encountered this problem 400 years ago,” he writes.
“His discoveries, based on careful observations and ingenious experiments, contradicted conventional wisdom and the teachings of the church at the time. Consequently, in a blatant assault on freedom of thought, his books were forbidden by church authorities,” he adds.
Livio says he has always been fascinated by Galileo. “He was, after all, not only the founder of modern astronomy and astrophysics – the person who turned an ancient profession into a window onto the universe’s deepest secrets and awe-inspiring wonders – but also a symbol of the fight for intellectual freedom.”
(This story has been published from a wire agency without modifications to the text)