Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Yet it moves...

So they found Galileo's other fingers. The thumb and index finger of his right hand, which have been missing for a century. Now they rejoin the middle finger, which has resided at the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence. I saw it there in 1969, a shriveled stick of bone and mummified skin. Pointing to the heavens. Or was it flipping a bird to his enemies?

On June 22nd, 1633, Galileo Galilei was condemned by a tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church for teaching that the Earth revolves about the sun, rather than the other way round. On his knees before the assembled cardinals, the seventy-year-old man recanted his belief in the Earth's motion and renounced his life work. So doing, he escaped torture or death by burning at the stake, and won instead the lighter sentence of house arrest in Florence. Legend has it that after reciting the official recantation he whispered under his breath, "Eppur si muove", "Yet it moves."

Whether Galileo actually whispered the legendary words hardy matters; he surely thought them. He returned to Florence, frail and blind, and continued his experiments in physics.

And the Earth went on revolving about the sun.

Here is a painting of the trial, Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury's Galileo before the Holy Office,, 1847. Click to enlarge.

On October 31, 1992, Pope John Paul II formally proclaimed that the Church erred in condemning Galileo. The condemnation resulted from a "tragic mutual incomprehension," said the Pope, and became a symbol of the Church's "supposed rejection of scientific progress."

Certainly, the condemnation of Galileo involved misunderstandings on both sides, but the phrase "mutual incomprehension" is not quite accurate. Galileo, at least, had a clear comprehension of the issue: In turning its back on the new science the Church risked undermining its moral and intellectual authority.

The Church's rejection of scientific progress was more than "supposed"; it was, and remains, very real. In particular, official Roman Catholic theology remains wedded to a dualistic and miracle-ridden philosophy that has long since been demonstrated to be superfluous.

The photograph that accompanied media stories about the church's admission of error in the condemnation of Galileo showed John Paul II dressed in Renaissance garb sitting on a Renaissance throne in a Renaissance palace, surrounded by other men (no women) also dressed in Renaissance clothes -- very reminiscent of the painting above. All that was missing was the seventy-year-old man on his knees on the marble floor. The photograph was symbolic: In spite of the Pope's cautious and carefully-worded proclamation to the contrary, orthodox theology and science remain essentially at odds.

I have scoured the internet for that symbolic 1992 photograph, including the Vatican's own photo archive, unsuccessfully. Can anyone help?