Your RDA of Irony

The Gall of Galileo

April 12, 1633:  Galileo’s Date With the Inquisition 

At least, it was the Italian Inquisition.  Galileo Galilei would only be tortured and executed after conviction.  In Spain, suspects often did not live through the trial, but their corpses would be re-executed in public.  Of course, Galileo would be found guilty; even the Italians weren’t that lenient.  But with ample groveling and recantation, the scientist was allowed to survive.  He would spend the remainder of his life–nine years– under house arrest.

And he really had committed a form of heresy: tactlessness.  His espousal of the Heliocentric Theory was not the problem.  In fact, the Church knew that the earth evolved around the sun.  It had the proof when Galileo was still discovering girls.  In 1582 the Church had premiered a new and improved calendar and, with rather obvious product placement, named it for Pope Gregory XIII.   But the same mathematical precision that calculated the correct length of the year and the exact date of the equinoces and solstices left the Church’s staff of astronomers with an unavoidable conclusion.  Oops, the Bible was wrong.

Frankly, the 17th century Church was not fond of the Bible, if only because the Protestants were.  A press release from the Vatican could have announced:  “Earth Actually Evolves Around the Sun.  Jews Lied to Us.”  But the Church preferred not to publicize the awkward truth.  (The Church seems to love keeping secrets.)

So the problem with Galileo really had nothing to do with science.  It was all a matter of tact–and Galileo didn’t have any.  Galileo had nothing new to say on the subject, but he just had to say it louder. The Church even gave him permission to publish his conclusions, so long as he followed Pope Urban VIII’s recommendation to be diplomatic to the supporters of the geocentric theory.

Unfortunately, Galileo did not feel like being polite to advocates of idiocy; and he wanted to insult anyone who even tolerated the geocentric club. So instead of a nice, scholarly discourse, Galileo had to write a satire. In his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”, Galileo has the geocentric theory espoused by a pretentious fool named Simplicius. Apparently overestimating the Church’s sense of humor, Galileo gave Simplicius a remarkable resemblance to the Pope.

And this was in 1632, right in the middle of the Thirty Years War. In the midst of religious genocide, the Church really did not need the distraction of a debate among its parishioners over the sun’s and the earth’s itinerary. On the contrary, everything had to evolve around the Church. If Galileo couldn’t keep a civil tongue, he was lucky to have a tongue at all. The Church had nothing against the actual science; it was just at a really inconvenient time. Yes, the first convenient time turned to be 350 years later.

But it was Galileo’s fault. Did the Church condemn any other scientist or physician?  No, because they were polite.   Newton was willing to give God credit for inventing gravity. Einstein, Heisenberg, and quantum physics were no problem; as long as it is unintelligible, the Church approves. Freud–well, that was just Jewish psychosis.  Edward Jenner never bragged, “Why didn’t Jesus think of this?”  Otherwise, the Church might have had to endorse smallpox. As for Darwin, he and the Church got along fine by ignoring each other.

So, Galileo really was condemned for his bad manners.  And perhaps all those polite scientists learned from his example.


  1. Michele says:

    Sounds like Galileo was the Richard Dawkins of 17th Century.

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