1 Feb 2009

Galileo Conference in Florence - Osservatore article and comments

The Vatican has decided to join the events of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. It is also nearly the 400th anniversary of the publication of Galileo's Starry Messenger (Sidereus nuncius). The Osservatore Romano has recently published two articles concerning these events. On the 30th January is the piece "Galileo's revolution 400 years later" and on 31st "The "Galileo Case" as an opportunity for dialogue". The style of the Osservatore, and of course the Vatican, is always tortuous when it comes to diplomacy - a kind of literary equivalent of squirming.

The first article is largely an announcement of an International Conference on Galileo Galilei to be held in Florence on 26-30 May. As conferences go this seems particularly long. The trial of Galileo is one story that just will not go away. It has become the archetypal clash between science and religion, reason and faith. I feel, sometimes, that a wider historical context should be promoted to the public, but I will write about this later, for now it is enough to just watch the Vatican propaganda in action. We must also not forget that the Vatican is in the peculiar position of having to defend itself, and yet if there is anywhere in the world with documents that could shed light on those events it is precisely in the Vatican archives. The propagandist protocol in cases of guilt is not to plead innocence but to completely muddy the water so that many people, especially the faithful, are left in doubt as to the Church's guilt. The aim of this article is in that category.

One strategy is to try to make Galileo seem untrustworthy. This is one of the most-often used bits of black propaganda - to put truths into the mouths of liars so that nobody believes them except those who comprehend the message all too clearly. That Galileo is a "complex" personality is laughable; I mean, aren't we all? Wouldn't we all react in different ways depending on how events unfolded for us? To court patrons is no crime - scientists do the same now except they are corporations or foundations rather than princes or kings. To ignore rivals is not in the spirit of science but that too happens today just as much as in the 17th century. To try and pin the first strike on Galileo's personality is ludicrous and should be recognized for what it is - a diversionary tactic worthy of a cheap trickster. There is one fact that is little mentioned so I will highlight it here.

The Jesuit astronomers taught Galileo's and Kepler's theories to the Japanese and Chinese while Galileo was still under house arrest. Now, re-read that sentence and think through the consequences of it.

One small episode in the whole Galileo drama has recently come to the fore, and this Year of Astronomy is as good a time as any to discuss the history of technology and philosophy of science. One of Galileo's criticisms against his accusers is that they refused to even look through his telescope to see for themselves the satellites of Jupiter and the mountains on the Moon. These fideists refused to do so on the philosophical ground that such a mechanical device distorted reality and therefore anything seen through it was just as likely to be an artefact of the telescope rather than an image of reality. True, the telescopes at the time were no better than cheap ones we can buy easily today, but the navigators who used them on a daily basis were not the kind of people to trust a device that produced mirages. The faithful refused to look through the telescope because by doing so they would see the truth for themselves. By refusing they could attack the man and the theories, not the data. In truth, the Jesuits did perform their own experiments but the role of the Jesuits in all of this and their battle with the Dominicans is worthy of a longer article.

There is a second aspect that is also always left out. Between the iconic figures of Copernicus and Galileo stands an often ignored figure who was a greater mathematician than both of them: Johann Kepler. It was Kepler who first discovered that planets move around the sun in ellipses. It was Kepler who discovered what are still known as Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion. Kepler even anticipated the law of gravity but thought it was some kind of magnetic field. It was Kepler's Laws that Newton later recast as consequences of a gravitational force. I really don't know why Copernicus especially is so well-known as his idea was correct but his formulation was hopelessly wrong. However, some people become totems for others that follow and this seems to be the case for Copernicus.

The Vatican's message in all of this is that the Church's stance at the time was somehow philosophically justified and not a persecution. Re-read my sentence on the Jesuits in Japan. Their stance was justified by the obstinate aristotelian Dominican order that controlled the Inquisition. In Aristotle we find that his idea of natural philosophy was a purely observational science, without experimentation for to experiment was to somehow distort nature. The battle between this narrow, and erroneous, aristotelian view and natural philosophers in no way starts with Galileo but had been going on for centuries. The Condemnation of 1277 in Paris is another little-known but important stage in the liberation of science from fideist religious doctrines.

Unfortunately, Galileo's Starry Messenger was first published in 1610, thereby outside the Year of Astronomy, but the organisers have still taken advantage that it was in 1609 that Galileo became the first modern astronomer, extending the human senses with a telescope. One disturbing piece of recent news is the attempt by Italian and British scientists to exhume Galileo's body in order to test his DNA for eyesight problems! Although this was hidden in the Reuters weird news section this immediately smelled like the hand of the Church at work. If they could show that Galileo had defective vision then they would have another grain of doubt to implant into the intellectually challenged and to show the world that the Vatican's initial scepticism was warranted. "If we knew exactly what was wrong with his eyes we could use computer models to recreate what he saw in his telescope," said Paolo Galluzzi, director of the Museum of History and Science in Florence, the city where Galileo is buried. This may sound like a mantra, but read again about what the Jesuits taught the Chinese.

This edition of the Osservatore also has an article with a brief history of the telescope. It includes quotes about how Galileo constructed his first telescope from a Dutch design. Here we do see Kepler credited for designing a better telescope than Galileo, with a higher magnification. Nothing extraordinary or controversial here but the article does end with "These are the eyes to better see the extraordinary beauty of the universe." How nice.


I will look next at the article in the 30 January edition.

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