Statue of Galileo

CNA has reported that a statue of Galileo is to be erected in the Vatican gardens. It is good to see that the head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has commented that it is appropriate for such a statue to be erected in the Vatican because Galileo was one of the founders of the Lincean Academy. This body has had a rather chequered history but it is not unreasonable for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to claim a link with it.

I rather like this idea: it fits in well with Pope Benedict's approach to the secularists. Of course, people will still bash on ignorantly about the Galileo affair but now they will have a new and inconvenient obstacle to the perpetuation of this portion of the black legend. Dramatic documentaries will have to include a new clip with the soundtrack probably something along the lines of "Surprisingly, in the Vatican Gardens, there is actually a statue of the man who was [tortured, persecuted ... fill in the blanks] by the Catholic Church." The plan for the statue is particularly apt in the wake of the controversy with La Sapienza university and the seeming inability of a number of lecturers there to understand that quoting a point of view on a subject does not commit the speaker to espousing that point of view - especially when it is quoted to illustrate a contrast with another point of view. (The problem, of course, is that if somebody does not understand that, they are unlikely to understand anyone explaining it to them.)

The Galileo affair is a great subject for bringing up inconvenient facts that escape the attention of most media presentations. Initially in Rome, the theory of Copernicus was given much positive encouragement: he asked permission (which was granted) to dedicate his De Revolutionibus to Pope Paul III. Luther, in the meantime, described Copernicus as an imbecile who wanted to turn the art of astronomy head over heels.

It is true that many Catholics at the time rejected the Copernican theory. But it is not often pointed out that so did the forerunner of the "enlightenment", Francis Bacon, who described the theory in his Novum Organum as a fictitious idea, an invention of which rational men should rid themselves, and "utterly false". One of Bacon's reasons for opposing Galileo was perfectly just: Galileo had offered the tides as irrefutable proof of the rotation of the earth and Bacon knew that the data possessed even then did not justify Galileo's conclusion.

The proof of the heliocentric thesis had to wait until Newton's discovery of the laws of gravitation which established that because of the difference in mass, the earth could not but rotate around the sun. The stellar parallax that had to be observed was only demonstrated in 1837 by Bessel.

Another example of the confusion of the time is Galileo's polemic Il Saggiatore in which he attacked the theories of the Jesuit Orazio Grassi who maintained that comets were fiery celestial bodies. Galileo answered with withering scorn and in most people's eyes won the debate, arguing that comets were optical illusions.

Nevertheless, Galileo was undoubtedly a genius and contributed greatly to the progress of the natural sciences. As Pope Pius XII said in a 1939 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he was one of the "most audacious heroes of research … not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments." We should simply be aware that the naive idea of the Galileo affair as one of the Church versus science and rationality was never more than a convenient building block in the black legend.

Galileo also invented the eponymous thermometer. I think I might ask my good friend and colleague, Fr Stephen Dingley, whether he can organise a group of PhD scientists to issue a collective apology on behalf of their colleagues around the world for Galileo's giving inspiration to the lava lamp.

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