It is one of the most cherished myths of modernity that Galileo had been constantly prosecuted by the inquisition. But was he? History books represent him as a genius. Was he a scientific genius? Or was he a genius in a completely different field?
There was at least one person who was less than impressed by it: Roberto Bellarmino, Cardinal Inquisitor, i.e. Head of the Holy Office. He was unable to find the incontrovertible prove in the booklet that would propel Copernicus’ hypothesis to stand as absolute truth. Scientifically speaking, Galileo’s publication was popular trash. Bellarmino was sure that he was dealing with a genius, but he didn’t see him in the field of astronomy.
Karl Popper expressed classically ideal science (in the 20th century) in a way that any theory should be proposed as a hypothesis as long as there is no incontrovertible proof that it is absolute truth. And we all know that Copernicus was wrong on several counts. And one fault Galileo defended pigheadedly was the theory of circular planetary orbits.
In 1908, French physics Professor Pierre Duhem was nearly lynched for saying that the judgement of the Inquisition was inescapable and deserved in the light of applied scientific logic. “Supposing that the system of Copernicus could explain all astronomical questions without fail, one could possibly assume it to be correct. Such causal proof has never been done.” Duhem was to be proven right, and Galileo wrong; who is the greater scientist?
Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino invited Galileo to explain his discoveries and findings. The more he heard, the more he grew sceptical; his scepticism wasn’t aimed at Copernicus’ hypothesis but at the proofs of Galileo’s. Bellarmino pointed out several gaps and leaps of faith in the causal reasoning within the Sidereus Nuncius, which made Galileo even more pigheaded.
Instead of going home to Florence to reappraise his evidence and faulty reasoning, he went on to write a short tract on the tides which he forwarded to Cardinal Orsini in 1616. His theory was that the oceans’ water was slogged around by the movement of the earth like milk in a bowl. The Cardinals of the Catholic Church and the scientific community of astronomers in Europe stood there with mouths wide open. They were completely shocked. They weren’t shocked at the incontrovertible proof Galileo presented for the system of Copernicus, but at his total lack of understanding of a phenomenon that most astronomers could already proof to be linked to the moon (in which they were at least partly right).
What did Galileo do for Copernicus and his heliocentric system? He managed to compel the Holy Office into suspending the Copernican system until its discrepancies could be fixed by more scientific research. Who needs enemies with a friend like Galileo? The move by the Inquisition in 1616 was not aimed at Copernicus or at Galileo personally, it was a move to suppress untenable popularism in favour of scientific exactitude.
Why the Inquisition Was Right to Muzzle Galileo Galilei (Part One)
Galileo Galilei: Contributions to Science
Galileo Galilei: Inventions
Galileo Galilei: Twilight
Galileo Galilei: Foregone Conclusion
Galileo Galilei: Turbulences and Trouble
Galileo Galilei: Fire and Ice
Galileo Galilei: Telescope Scoop
Galileo Galilei: A Career in Free Fall
Galileo Galilei: Medical Student and Inventor
Marquis Federico Cesi and His Academy
Hypatia of Alexandria