B.R. Cohen’s Annals of Science
Science and scientists are funnily or strangely charming, besides being strictly adverbial. The Annals of Science—whose beta-test name was The Fanciful Annals of Science, to evoke a 6/8 metric feel—is all you could ask for, if you’re asking for the intersection of science, history, and dry charm.
Galileo Was Right
About the Stars.
BY B.R. COHEN
Galileo’s about 70 and sick, on his way to trial, and there’s a plague going on, and it’s almost springtime, and we’re talking 1633 here. The tides slosh around. Jupiter has moons. I’m sure it’s sunny, too. Why not? Bad stuff about to go down, though.
Let’s review characters. Copernicus: dead. Tycho Brahe: dead (ooh, and Danish). Kepler: dead. Jesuits: everywhere. A Spanish anti-papal cabal: in the wings. Ptolemy: better to not bring that up. Mario Biagioli: good biographer. Maffeo Barberini: call him Pope Urban VIII. The Medicis: in charge. Memento mori: I forget why this is in my notes. Roberto Benigni: unrelated but hilarious.
Here’s what we know: Galileo was Pisan, the son of a musician who wanted him to study medicine. (Very prestigious.) But he was a math whiz. (Not so prestigious.) He didn’t get paid much to do it, but he made his way. And eventually grew a beard. And fathered two children, one of whom became a nun. He tutored the young Cosimo de’ Medici. And got a job at Padua and later at Florence. And wrote Sidereus nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”) in 1610.
That was good. This is where he used a (newfangled) telescope to look at Jupiter and started noticing and naming its moons. He got some play from the Medicis there by calling them the Medicean stars. Smart move, currying favor. Remember how they’re in charge.
He wrote “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” in 1615. It circulated privately, but was not printed. Not so notable. Nothing big going on here. Oh, only the most epic human drama imaginable, the so-conceived timeless Manichean battle between scripture and science, the precipice that might be the place of humanity in the entire order of the universe, the infinitely delirious conversation between essence, being, the human mind, and the world that binds them all! Yeah, nothing big at all. Christ, people.
Then there was that whole 1616 thing?! Where the Inquisition said how you couldn’t talk about the earth going around the sun! Ban Copernicus’s book? Remember? The Inquisition?
Next was the eager comet-watching frenzy of 1618. It was all so much fun. Jesuits loved it. Galileo loved it. They wrote about it. He wrote about it (in The Assayer, 1623). Though he was picking on them a bit. And they had some fights.
Even so, the rest of the ’20s was generally calm. As I understand it, lots of folks dancing on flagpoles and running hooch across the border, but, besides that, nothing dramatic.
Now we can go up to 1632. Galileo publishes Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondo (“A Dialogo Where People Talk About del World”). Maffeo Barberini, friend of our hero, is the pope. That Inquisition? Where they don’t want you to contradict the authorities? Well, it’s revisiting the 1616 thing about not contradicting the authorities.
Incidentally, there’s all this, too: If Jupiter has its own moons, then said moons don’t go around the earth. But everything goes around the earth, so how can this be? If the tides slosh, then maybe the earth is moving. But everything goes around the eternally still earth, so how does that make sense? Those are problems, true.
Then let’s talk culture. Oh, how I keep trying to get it back to that. (Not to mention the Spanish anti-papal cabal.) Given the world of courtly politics, there’s this also: If you spend a good two, three decades cultivating your courtier position, and have friends in high places, one of whom even becomes pope, and they say it’s OK to write this stuff about astronomy (they did say that, Urban gave the OK earlier), then what’s so wrong? I mean, the Jesuits aren’t even Ptolemaic anymore! And then they come down on you after the Dialogo, and you end up under house arrest? Who’s right about the stars? Each one a setting sun?
In early 1633, they haul our guy in, and he waits in his beard until the verdict, and, like I said, he’s older, and he’s guilty, and he has to confess. His fall from grace complete, he lives the rest of his life in a house in Siena, ah, precious Siena, and that should teach people that you don’t step on the Church’s toes, that you don’t undermine the bedrock of Roman Catholic authority and the core of the civilized West and all that, and that only these and those people can tell you what’s right and so on and so forth, and you can see them now, doing that little palm-smacking-palm thing people do in a washing-their-hands-of-it done-and-done overture (smack-smack-smack). Thank goodness there was never another argument that pitted the church against the rising scientific establishment again. Yes, thank goodness for that. The end.
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