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Long-Lost Letter Reveals How Galileo Tried to Trick the Inquisition

September 21, 2018 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Galileo had evidence suggesting that Earth orbits the sun (not the other way around), but he also knew it was a dangerous theory.


Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) explaining his theories on the solar system.

A long-lost letter written by Galileo Galilei reveals an effort by the 17th-century astronomer to soften his public stance against the Catholic Church’s doctrine that the sun orbits the Earth. The letter, uncovered at the Royal Society in London, appears to solve a four-century-old mystery over Galileo’s original language on the celestial matter.

In the letter, written in 1613, the famed astronomer-philosopher-physicist-mathematician argued for the first time against the concept that the sun orbited the Earth (and not the other way around). When a copy of the letter was later forwarded to the Inquisition in Rome, Galileo claimed the language had been altered to make it more heretical, and produced a toned-down version he claimed was the original. In fact, as this new discovery shows, it was Galileo who had done some altering.

The newly rediscovered document, which had been misdated in the Royal Society library’s catalog, shows that Galileo himself had made changes to his original text, in an effort to protect himself from the Inquisition’s wrath.

The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus had argued in his 1543 book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres that the sun lay at the center of the universe, while Earth was a planet orbiting it. Though Copernicus himself did not live to see the impact of his revolutionary heliocentric theory, the mathematician Giordano Bruno was convicted of heresy in 1600 for his support of Copernicus’ theory, and burned at the stake.

Through his telescopic experiments, Galileo found evidence that supported the Copernican model. On December 21, 1613, he wrote to his friend Benedetto Castelli, a mathematician at the University of Pisa in Italy, about his findings. He argued that passages in the Bible mentioning astronomical events could not be taken literally, and that the Copernican theory was not necessarily incompatible with the Bible.

Due to the controversial nature of the letter, copies were circulated, and one was sent to the Inquisition in Rome in 1615. Shortly after that, Galileo wrote to a cleric friend claiming that the letter forwarded to the Inquisition had been altered to amplify the heresy of Galileo’s claims. He enclosed what he said was the original, and asked his …read more

Source: HISTORY

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