“crackpots” who were right 15: Galileo Galilei

I have tried to keep to recent and relevant cases in my stories of “crackpots” who turned out to be right, but to celebrate one year of viXra I’m including a much older one. The plight of Galileo Galilei is well-known so I’ll be brief, but it is always worth retelling. Actually it is the story of a number of heretics and a hundred years of history that saw centuries of dogma finally pushed aside.

The event that made it possible was undoubtedly the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450. Before then any book had to be copied laboriously by hand which meant that scientific knowledge in Europe was controlled by a small and elite group based around the church. The possibility to print mass copies of books meant that new ideas could be distributed rapidly and beyond the control of the select few who wished to censor it. (I like to think that viXra.org plays a similar role today in its own small way.)

Less than a hundred years later one such book was printed in the name of Nicolaus Copernicus. “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” was about the revolution of the planets, but it also started a revolution of scientific thought. Copernicus had formulated his idea that the Earth and planets revolved around the Sun 30 years earlier but he was reluctant to publish openly until near the end of his life. It seems he need not have worried. The heliocentric theory was at first welcomed by the church and by scholars despite its potential contradictions with catholic teachings. These were happier times before the unsettling influence of the reformations took hold.

Until then cosmology was based on the ancient work of Aristotle and Ptolemy who taught that the Earth was fixed at the centre while the sun, moon and planet revolved on system of celestial spheres. After Copernicus the first direct evidence that this could not be quite right came from observations of comets by Tycho Brahe. In 1577 he noticed that comets passed through the spheres, something that was not supposed to be possible. Further cracks opened when Giovanni Benedetti attacked Aristotle’s laws of motion. it had been believed that all bodies tend to a natural state of rest but Bendetti noticed that a law of impetus better fitted observations. In 1592 this helped Galileo formulate his principle that the laws of physics in the heavens was the same as on Earth. A year later Johannes Kepler published his astonishing observation that the motion of the planets was best accounted for in a heliocentric system with the planets following elliptic orbits.

So far there had not been too much controversy as the old scientific dogma fell away, but that was to change dramatically. In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burnt at the state for his heretical view that the stars are distant suns with other Earth’s in orbit. The revolution had gone too far for the church’s liking.

When Galileo famously turned his telescope to the night sky he saw things that would finally overturn the old dogma. Jupiter had moons that revolved around it. The surface of the moon was scarred with craters. The sun, thought to be a sign of perfection, was blemished with dark spots. Hostility towards his ideas grew and Galileo knew he had to tread carefully, but he also had to speak up for truth. His book  Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems published in 1630 led to him being brought before Pope Paul V. He was deeply suspected of heresy but a partial recant saved him. Nevertheless, he spent the rest of his life under house arrest watched closely to ensure that no more of his dangerous ideas could be published. Of course it was too late. The genie of truth was already freed and with the wide distribution of printed books it was no longer possible to rebottle it.

Many people see Galileo’s battle as a fight against religion. It is possible to find passages in the bible that  say the Earth is fixed, an idea that Galileo contradicted and which was central to the case against him. However, I see his struggle as something directed against a scientific dogma that happened to be firmly tied to the authority of the church. Many of the people involved in overturning it were themselves priests, cardinals and bishops and they did not seem to see any contradiction with their beliefs. It was only when the authority of the church over scientific teaching was threatened that opposition arose. In this sense it is not so different from most of the more modern stories we have encountered of “crackpots” who were right.


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