Galileo Galilei


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Galileo Galilei
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Galileo Galilei 1520-1642

He constructed the first real telescope and made important observations about falling bodies. These achievements alone would have insured Galileo's greatness. But the work that was of the greatest historical importance was his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World - Ptolemaic and Copernican. With this work (and its spectacular aftermath), the relationship between science and religion would never be the same.

Galileo supported the Copernican theory of the universe - that the earth revolved around the sun. This brought him into conflict with the Catholic Church and into conflict within himself - he struggled between his faith in the Church and his faith in science.

The Church position was the Ptolemeic theory endorsed by Aristotle - that the sun and all the heavens revolved around the earth. Watching the sky it certainly appears that the sun is moving across the sky, and all ancient civilizations assumed this to be true.

Most importantly, the Book of Joshua told how Joshua stopped the sun. Obviously, in order to stop the sun, the sun had to move.

Joshua, 10: 12-13 "Then spake Joshua... Sun stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon... So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hastened not to go down about a whole day."

Galileo understood the importance of a non-literal interpretation of the Bible to reconcile faith and science, but the Church did not accept this view.

Take note, theologians, that in your desire to make matters of faith out of propositions relating to the fixity of sun and earth you run the risk of eventually having to condemn as heretics those who would declare the earth to stand still and the sun to change position -- eventually, I say, at such a time as it might be proved that the earth moves and the sun stands still. The Dialogue

He was called before the Inquisition and was judged guilty of heresy. Galileo testified that he was not arguing that the Copernican doctrine was true, but was merely presenting both sides. Unfortunately, on the face of the book this clearly was not true. He acknowledged before the Inquisition that the Copernican doctrine was false, and received a fairly light penalty, house arrest for the rest of his life. But he was never the same.

It is sometimes said that as Galileo left the Inquisition he muttered under his breath, "yet it moves," referring to the motion of the earth. This saying is almost certainly apocryphal - it never happened. He took very seriously the precariousness of his position, and all his comments both to friends and to the Inquisition show how unlikely this was.

Galileo was in a real spiritual conflict. When the Church said that Ptolemy was right and Copernicus was wrong, as a sincere Catholic of the time he had to agree. Yet his mathematical theories and observations told him that Copernicus was right. The scientist in him had to agree with this. The Ptolemeic and Copernican points of view were merely theories which could not at that time be proven. When the Inquisition called upon Galileo, there was not yet a real split between science and religion to most people. Before Galileo, a person of conscience did not have to choose. The truth was the truth and God and science were on the same side. Galileo changed this forever.

It was not until 1992, 350 years after his death, that the Catholic Church admitted that the condemnation of Galileo was a mistake.

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