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When Galileo Stood Trial for Defending Science

May 19, 2020 in History

By Mario Livio

The Italian astronomer argued that Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. Then he paid a price.

Four centuries ago, the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei put his liberty and life on the line to convince the religious establishment that the Copernican model of the solar system—in which the Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun—represented physical reality.

Following his own observations and the findings by other astronomers, no one could really argue anymore that what one saw through the telescope was an optical illusion, and not a faithful reproduction of the world. The only defense remaining to those refusing to accept the conclusions first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus, a Renaissance-era mathematician and astronomer, and bolstered by accumulating facts and scientific reasoning, was to reject the interpretation of the results.

Theologians concluded that a moving Earth and a stationary sun were in conflict with literal interpretations of scripture, and with the Ptolemaic geocentric model, which had been adopted as the Catholic Church’s orthodoxy. The deniers cited, for example, the book of Joshua, in which, at Joshua’s request, God commanded the sun, and not the Earth, to stand still over the ancient Canaanite city of Gibeon.

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Inquisition of Galileo Is Launched Under Pope

Galileo Galilei before members of the Holy Office in the Vatican in 1633.

Galileo, however, went on to publish his book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which he derided those who refused to accept the Copernican system. On April 12, 1633, chief inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculano, appointed by Pope Urban VIII, launched an inquisition of Galileo and ordered the astronomer to appear in the Holy Office to begin trial.

The trial of Galileo, a man described by Albert Einstein as “the father of modern science,” took place in three sessions, on April 12, April 30 and May 10 in 1633. The sentence was delivered on June 22.

In the first session, prosecutor Maculano introduced a warning issued against Galileo 17 years earlier, in which Galileo was ordered by the Church’s Commissary General to abandon his Copernican ideas and not to defend or teach them in any way. This document was significant, since in his book (published in 1632), Galileo presented arguments favoring the Copernicus model, even though he added a preface and a coda which appeared to imply that one couldn’t conclude …read more


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