Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Earth Moves: Galileo and the Roman Inquisition by Dan Hofstadter

In many accounts of the 1632 papal proceedings against Galileo Galilei, the astronomer/mathematician/philosopher is cast as a defender of science and truth, and Pope Urban VIII is vilified as a backward church father, unwilling to face modernity. Galileo insists the sun is the center of our part of the universe, while the pope retains the belief in the earth as the center of creation. In The Earth Moves: Galileo and the Roman Inquisition, however, Dan Hofstadter shows the case was a bit more complicated than it has often presented to be.

Having seen the now available papal transcripts of the inquisition, not really a "trial" by modern standards, Hofstadter revises the story. The real charge was disobedience, not heresy. The pope was most upset that Galileo used deception to get a imprimatur on a book about a forbidden topic. The irony is that in a previous decade, when still a cardinal, the pope urged Galileo to write a book about the Copernican view of the universe. Scientific evidence to support or disprove Galileo's vision of the universe was never presented in the inquiry. In the end the pope was almost willing to just forgive the old astronomer after the latter confessed, but behind the scene papal politics intervened. Galileo lived the rest of his life on parole.

Hofstadter's story may actually be more disturbing than the often-told tale. Urban VIII understood the science and knew that Galileo was right, but the church was filled with people who could be described as "biblical neoconservatives." Galileo's theories threatened not only the belief in Bible infallibility but also the belief in astrology. If the planets were moved, seers had no basis for their astrological readings. The pope understood these constituents and ruled according to their prejudices in ruling against science and Galileo. Hofstadler also suggests that family and city-state rivalries and envy were really behind the charges. The Galileo affair was a skirmish in a much larger cold war. The author proposes that someone else should research and write a longer book about this assertion.

With its sections about Galileo's upbringing and education and about his work with telescopes, The Earth Moves serves as a quick reading profile of the astronomer. I enjoyed reading about how Galileo described his experiments in pre-Newtonian language. His descriptors for motion were "inclination," "repugnance," "indifference," and "violence." Because algebra had not yet been invented, his calculations of planetary orbits are particularly amazing.

Readers who enjoy human drama may get a little bogged down in the middle section of the book, which includes technical details about telescopes and various theories about the arrangements of planets, stars, and comets. The first and final sections have faster flowing narratives that should please many history readers.

Hofstadter, Dan. The Earth Moves: Galileo and the Roman Inquisition. W.W. Norton, 2009. ISBN 9780393066500

No comments: