Saturday, October 27, 2012

Galileo's 1633 trial: a tragic hero

I was pleased that virtually all the media criticize the recent manslaughter verdict against the Italian seismologists.

Many outlets compare the trial to the 1633 trial against Galileo Galilei. So I decided to find a video explaining some details about that event in particular and Galileo's life in general – and the 52-minute Chicago talk by Rocky Kolb (whom I hosted once at Harvard) from 2011 turned out to be a very informative choice although I clearly disagree with many sentiments that Kolb expressed during the talk.

Some people say that Galileo has overreached, he was arrogant because throughout his life, he enjoyed to point out why idiots around him were idiots, and all this stuff.

Galileo wasn't arrogant when he explained that the difference between him and the stupid folks around him was greater than the difference between humans and animals. He wasn't arrogant because his statement was clearly true and very important. It was very important from the viewpoint of the abstract truth; it was very important for the civilized character of the present, too.

Off-topic: Decay: Something truly unexpected has been discovered at the LHC! By young Oxford employees at CERN.

At the beginning of the talk, Rocky Kolb tells us various things about Galileo's ability to get the maximum out of the telescope (that he "devised" but didn't invent – but he deliberately used the ambiguous verb "devised") and he describes other events from Galileo's CV.

Kolb says that astronomy had been a part of the mathematics (and not physics) departments because astronomers were only supposed to find "kinematic fits" for the observed trajectories but they were not trying to find the "physical or dynamical causes". And he reminds us that the Catholic Church hadn't had an official position on Copernicanism: they would say it's just some models that didn't say anything direct about the reality (they were agnostic in the disagreement between Ptolemy and Copernicus). Galileo's own effort to codify his understanding of the astronomy (he only became a Copernicanist at some point when he studied this problem at depth) is what forced the Church to adopt an official position (unfortunately, one chosen by theologians and incompetent astronomers according to a literal interpretation of the Bible) and to bring him into trouble and impose a sort of a ban of Copernicanism for him.

I am extremely grateful to Galileo for having done what he has done and he was just right about these scientific and political issues. Let me mention some of the aspects discussed by Kolb.

For example, Galileo was being implicitly criticized for claiming to be able to correctly interpret the astronomical statements in the Bible. Was he overreaching? I don't think so. Because Christianity was such a universal and omnipotent part of the culture of that epoch, it was virtually impossible to convince anyone of anything if you outright denied the tenets of Christianity such as "the validity of the Holy Scripture (at least in some sense)".

Another fact, and it is a related fact, was that the Church bureaucrats had a monopoly to "interpret the reality". Everyone else was doing just some "details" that were not allowed to influence any "greater questions". But Galileo Galilei clearly had the insights that were going to substantially change some "greater questions": he was giving birth to the scientific method as we know it and it is no detail.

Because of this reason, it seems totally obvious that he simply had to struggle to overtake the competency to determine what is true about the deepest cosmic questions from the Church bureaucrats. After all, as Kolb admits, Copernicus himself wrote just a cryptic text filled with complicated mathematical expressions and jargon that didn't even attempt to reach a broader readership, so his work became a hobby for a small group of astronomers only. Thank God, Galileo didn't want to be satisfied with a similar outcome. If he were satisfied, the Western civilization could be as unscientific and unenlightened in 2012 AD as the Islamic anticivilization is. The religious leaders could dictate what to think about the motion of celestial bodies – and all other fundamental enough questions – even today.

So the statement "I am able to properly interpret the biblical astronomy" was simply saying "I know how the things actually work" translated to the Latin of the time in which the "power to define the truth" and the "power of Church bureaucrats to preach" were considered synonymous. The Bible was considered true by definition, so of course that given this assumption, the ability to explain how the Solar System actually worked was the same thing as explaining how it worked according to the Bible.

For the very same reason, Galileo – who wanted to become a monk but (because of the pressure from his father) tried to become a physician for a while – ultimately grabbed the credentials as a mathematician as well as a philosopher. He realized that the "philosophers" of his time were just doing rubbish – and they were mostly parroting and uncritically celebrating folks like Aristotle which meant that there was almost no potential for genuine progress. At the same time, these deluded people had lots of influence so Galileo realized that he needed to be considered a philosopher as well in order to gain the capacity to correct many of the unscientific misconceptions that were spread by the "philosophers".

Much of this stuff that Galileo was doing was politics but Galileo was the good guy who actually possessed the truth.

In 1632, Galileo wrote The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It is a fictitious discussion between Salviati, a hero named after Galileo's friend and presenting many of Galileo's positions, and Simplicio, a guy described as an idiot who presents the opinion of some stupid people of the time such as Ludovico delle Colombe (1565-1616?), Galileo's fiercest detractor, and Cesare Cremonini (1550–1631), a colleague who rejected all the observations based on telescopes as a matter of principle. And of course another stupid guy, the Pope (Urban VIII, reign 1623-1644). The discussion is moderated by a smart laymen called Sagredo who is neutral at the beginning.

Kolb says that "he had no idea" why Galileo would write a text in which an idiot looked like he was the Pope. Well, I have some idea. It's because this was exactly what was happening in the real world, too. The Pope was one of the idiots of Galileo's time and it was totally necessary for any progress to challenge this particular idiot, too. Again, I think that if Galileo hadn't had the courage to challenge the Pope, the Western civilization wouldn't really change and the scientific revolution couldn't begin because obsolete dogmas and their champions would continue to have the power to stifle any important scientific development.

Galileo's "Dialogue" quickly made it to the bestseller lists. At some moment, the book was banned. Of course, the book became even more popular because of that. Soon afterwards, the Pope complained to the Inquisition. In 1633, Galileo arrived for the trial to Rome (his clever attempt to relocate the trial to friendly Florence was denied). See a 5-minute cartoon version of the trial. Galileo faced a possibility of Giordano Bruno's fate – whose tongue was (after an 8-year-long trial) glued to the mouth so that the politically correct assholes of his time didn't have to worry that he would say something "dangerous" before he is burned at stake.

All the materials from the trial became publicly accessible – despite the obvious Catholic Church's efforts to keep them secret – thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte. He visited Rome and kindly asked them, with a minor help of this army, to hand out the materials so that they may be kept in Paris. ;-) In 1845, the French agreed to return all the materials to the Vatican but there was a condition: everything must be published.

But back to 1633. The Pope was the clear driver of attempts to harass Galileo. So the court was filled with Galileo's enemies. But what could have they accused him from? The book actually had signatures of several Catholic officials who authorized the book as OK for all audiences. So how could they punish him if they had allowed him to write it?

The trial was pretty short: about five pages. Four depositions. First one: Do you know why you're here, Dr Galileo? It's probably about my book. Do you recognize it etc.? Were you in Rome in 1616? Yes, I came to learn about the geocentrism vs heliocentrism debate. The Church had banned him from promoting heliocentrism, at least the possibly fake official documents suggest so. Galileo argued he didn't really remember what he wasn't allowed to do – defend, teach, study, promote, whatever. Galileo argued that he didn't even defend heliocentrism; instead, he was promoting both sides of the debate, including the imbeciles, mental pygmies, dumb idiots, people hardly deserving to be called human beings, people too stupid to recognize their own limitations (these are Galileo's actual words but yes, great minds think alike), in a fair and balanced way. But the Church said he wasn't allowed to teach it in any way.

To defend himself, Galileo said an incredible lie: he said that the book defended the geocentrists (called the "imbeciles" etc.). An attorney would probably stop him from making such an implausible claim but he was defending himself.

Next time, Galileo said that he suddenly understood why they were thinking he was defending Copernicanism. He actually was so smart and nice that he described the Copernican interpretation – so obviously wrong – in a way that actually looks much more plausible than it is. :-) He offered them to fix the things in another edition of the book.

Galileo got 8 days to prepare a defense. He said he didn't remember any ban on "teaching" heliocentrism. And he said he believed that he didn't have to inform the censors about the injunction. My only error was the ambition to appear smarter than everyone else, he said. And Galileo complained about his health, old age, and good name.

The Inquisition asked him a simple question: Had he ever been a Copernican? Galileo said he was uncertain until 1616 but since the official position was taken, he believed Ptolemy. Clearly a lie. He denied being Copernican. The Church said they didn't believe him.

On June 22nd, 1633, Galileo had to listen to the sentence in humiliating clothes. He's suspect of the heliocentric heresy, he was told. Galileo saved his life by a verbal self-destruction. There is no way how he could have said "it is moving, anyway" during this scene. The life in prison was signed by 7 of the 10 cardinals only. It's not clear to me whether the remaining 3 wanted a tougher or milder punishment, however. The Pope – who orchestrated the trial behind the scenes – later changed the verdict to a "life-long house arrest" in order to look magnanimous.

Galileo died in 1642. His remains were soon moved to a more prestigious place but as recently as in the 19th century, his "Dialogue" could imperil your immortal soul even if you just read it.

Kolb asks whether Galileo was a classical tragic hero. My answer is Yes, he was. But he was much more than that, too. He was a man who opened the doors to scholars' ability to challenge the opinions held by the entire hierarchy of Church bureaucrats (the Christian churches became able to reform themselves and compatible with the modern world as a result of that), who established the scientific method, and who was still able to save his life by a sequence of tricks and lies. His achievements included the highly technical and experimental ones, conceptual and theoretical ones, as well as political ones, and all these three groups were very important.

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