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OTG: Galileo and the Joy of History

By Thomas Van (bio - articles - email) | Dec 21, 2013

Here’s a classic example of human egotism: we rarely take an interest in the past except insofar as it can serve us in the present. We are seldom patient enough to see history in all its messy complexity; we would rather torture it into a simplistic narrative to win some modern culture war, or press our poor dead ancestors into the service of anachronistic ideologies that they would scarcely have recognized.

Take the infamous Galileo affair, which has long since become a piece of modern mythology. Informed Catholics are aware that the typical secular account pitting the Catholic Church vs. Science is a gross oversimplification, if not an outright fabrication. After all, there were clergymen and scientists on both sides of the issue. But how many Catholics have taken an interest in the case beyond the cursory glance necessary for apologetic purposes, or studied the events without the overriding preoccupation of making the Church look good? Indeed, how often in general do any of us take a look at history on its own terms, not to win or lose some fight but simply for the experience of going outside oneself, getting beyond one’s cultural and ideological lens and simply learning about the past for its own sake? Probably not very often, but there are few better ways of cultivating a sober Catholic (that is, non-ideological) sense of history than simply taking a look at the past and trying to learn from it rather than use it.

With regard to the Galileo affair in particular, a good way to do this would be to read Michael Flynn’s nine-part blog series, The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown, which follows the historical conflict between geocentrism and heliocentrism, very much including Galileo and his troubles. The series is both provocative and humorous from the very first part, in which Flynn challenges modern readers to demonstrate heliocentrism ourselves before we conclude that our ancestors were just stupid. In his highly readable (if lengthy) account, Flynn, a statistician and award-winning science fiction author, provides as much detail as one could desire about the scientific, philosophical, and political context of the Galileo trial, not to mention the many fascinating characters whose personal alliances and vendettas, even more than the ideas involved, made the case so controversial. All the bases are covered here, and anyone who reads the series from beginning to end should come away with a deeper appreciation of the nuances of the Galileo affair, and of the complex nature of scientific progress and history itself.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Dec. 21, 2013 11:29 AM ET USA

    So far as I understand it, the Pope at the time was beginning to see the truth in Galileo's claims, but Galileo lost patience and began to mock the Holy Father. As a result action was taken against Galileo and his theories languished. A profound example to impatient intellectuals... Mea culpa!

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