In 1633, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the Stephen Hawking of his day – both famous & respected across Europe. Nonetheless, he was ordered by the Pope in Rome to stand trial before the Italian Inquisition. Known for its brutal interrogations by torture, it was the most feared and notorious court in all of Europe. His crime – Galileo’s Science, daring to state that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe – was pure heresy!
The Roman Catholic Inquisition, be it Italian or Spanish, had been rooting out what it considered sacrilege and witchcraft since the medieval Dark Ages. Throw into this irrational mess Galileo’s clear evidence disproving long held Church teachings when it came to Earth and the heavens and you had the recipe for a life-threatening scientific stand.
The Catholic Church had in essence become the first Science Deniers.
This was actually the 2nd time Galileo was called before the Inquisition. In 1616, he had been forbidden from teaching his “heliocentric” beliefs about the sun, and Galileo reluctantly agreed at the time to stop. It’s worth mentioning that the famous astronomer was actually a deeply religious man who supported the ideals of Christianity, if not all its beliefs. He had even fathered three illegitimate children out of wedlock.
Galileo perfected the refracting telescope, allowing him to explore the nighttime heavens. Amongst his many discoveries was not only did the planet Jupiter have 4 moons, but those heavenly bodies orbited around the planet! He discovered that Venus, like the Earth’s moon, had phases, meaning it too orbited the sun. He published his findings in The Starry Messenger and it became an instant Renaissance best seller. Unfortunately, this also supported the church-banned heliocentric theories of the late astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus.
At that time, Galileo was free to write about anything he wanted, even heliocentricism, as long as he wrote it as a personal hypothesis and did NOT try to pass it off as scientific fact. As a born scientist and stubborn intellectual however, Galileo simply could not abide by such restrictive church laws and published The Starry Messenger as science fact.
He then convinced his old friend, Pope Urban VIII, to let him write a book that showed both sides of the debate – geocentric and heliocentric. His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, had a fictional argument between two characters who held either view of where the earth and the sun stood in the near universe. Galileo, however, made the dim-witted geocentric character to be the clear loser of the debate.
A furious Pope Urban ordered Galileo to appear before the Inquisition in Rome on charges of heresy.
Galileo was no fool, understood the risks, and knew the danger he was now in. Men had been brutally tortured in dungeons and burned at the stake for far lesser crimes of ‘sorcery.’ The astronomer however still believed that TRUTH and LOGIC would win in the end, even with the single-minded, religious fanatics who ran the Inquisition. Alas, how naïve and wrong he was.
On the opening day of his trial, he stood before his accuser, the Grand Inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola. Church officials interpreted his Dialogue as a clear violation of his 1616 Agreement. Galileo disagreed vehemently, but his position hardly mattered. Heliocentricism flew in the face of centuries of Catholic Church teaching. The court used numerous scripture passages from the Bible’s Old Testament to defend their geocentric views. The Grand Inquisitor claimed that Galileo’s revolutionary telescope was nothing more than a magician’s trick.
Found guilty of heresy, Galileo was condemned to imprisonment rather than death.
He was given an opportunity to recant however, and not spend the rest of his life in a cold, dark dungeon cell. At the time, Galileo was already 70 years old and in poor health. At his beloved daughter’s pleading, herself a nun, he reluctantly agreed to recant. With his head bowed, wearing the white robes of a penitent, he told the scowling Inquisitor that he “cursed any heresies which he may have espoused in the past.”
Galileo hoped his old friend Pope Urban would help him, and in the end, he did. Galileo was placed under house arrest rather than prison. Having avoided burning at the stake, one could say he got off with a mere slap on the wrist. He was forced to retire to his estate in Florence, a defeated and dejected man. In his own house, he could neither write, teach, nor travel without the Church’s express permission. Nevertheless, while under house arrest he wrote one of his finest works, Two New Sciences, which he had published in Holland to avoid the censor. It was in Florence he remained till his death in 1642 at the age of 78.
The Catholic Church finally lifted the ban on all of Galileo’s works over a century later in 1758 by Pope Benedict XIV. In 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo Galilei was wrongly charged and regretted the astronomer’s treatment by the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps as a posthumous consolation, NASA named a Jupiter probe in his honor. The sturdy satellite thoroughly explored the giant planet in 1995, including the four famous moons discovered by the astronomer – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
Unfortunately, science deniers still exist in our culture even today, centuries after the cruel Inquisition, often in positions of political or religious power. Disputed subject can range from such hot topics as vaccines to evolution to climate change. Deniers and conspiracy theorists continue to stubbornly refute the basic laws of science and Mother Nature, at their own, and often, our risk. But Mother Nature, like Galileo Galilei, has a stubborn way of proving them all wrong, in the end.