Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Galileo Was Wrong!

Oh boy - I sure got your attention with that title! Well, of course he was. You already know that it wasn't his own idea that the planets go around the sun, that old Polish scientist Kopernik and some Greek guy named Aristarchus said also that - but Galileo had this thing about circles, and didn't want to hear any opposition. But Kepler showed that the planets go in ellipses, not circles as Galileo claimed - it's the data, stupid! That's why we talk of Kepler's Laws of planetary motion now. And Galileo's use of the tides was shown to have an error in the use of the reference systems. Even when he was told of that error to his face - no, not by theologians, by scientists - he was a bit too full of himself to listen. No, he didn't say "and yet it moves". No, he didn't drop balls from the Leaning Tower. No, the Church didn't condemn him; it was science that rejected his work. But the myths persist.

Why do I bring up such an old dull controversy today? Well, today, September 17, is the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine, who was a Cardinal and dealt with the Galileo case. Someday perhaps I will write at length about the matter; Fr. Jaki has lots of scattered details, and there are a few books around which go into the various aspects of the case - but for today I will just give a short excerpt from one of Chesterton's essays, mainly to lighten the discussion with humour and with insight.
One reason for reconciling oneself cheerfully to regarding the sun as a strange star is that it seems likely, in the light of the latest science, that we shall find it illuminating a very strange world. I am a child in these things; and so long as the child is allowed to play in the garden, he does not bother very much about the rules regulating the visits of that shining stranger, who has of late been very much of a stranger. But he does know enough about recent revolutions, in the ideas about space and light and atomic structure, to know that not only the sun, but also the garden, grows more mysterious every day. We may come to regarding the sun almost as a secret; like the sun that wore the mask of the moon in Mr. Max Beerbohm's fairy-tale; a deceptive luminary; almost, if the contradiction be allowed, a dark luminary; with crooked rays; with invisible violet rays; with something resembling black rays, beyond the dreams of the blind. It seems to be anything but the simple golden globe with which the simple Victorian naturalists dealt so easily, when they taught us the use of the globes. Some of the things that are now said about it astonish me very much. For instance, Mr. Rene Fulop-Miller, the highly intelligent and impartial historian of the Bolshevist Revolution, has recently written a book about the Jesuits. It is equally detached about the Jesuits; it is entirely detached from the religion of the Jesuits. The writer is an ordinary modern rationalist; very emphatic upon the need to keep abreast of modern science. He narrates, as any rationalist would, as any reasonable man would, the victory of Galileo and the Copernican astronomy, with its earth going round the sun, over the old Ptolemaic astronomy, with its sun going round the earth. I should, of course, entirely accept that Copernican victory; it never would occur to me to do anything else. But I was considerably startled when Mr. Fulop-Miller, after stating the ordinary view of the Solar System which everybody accepts, and I have naturally accepted, goes on calmly to write as follows -
It is true that the most recent mathematical and physical theories necessitate a revision of this commonly held opinion, for no longer does the teaching of Ptolemy appear "wholly false," nor that of Copernicus "alone true," as Galileo thought. Rather does it appear that both the systems have fundamentally an equal claim to recognition, and that the superiority of the Copernican system rests solely on the greater simplicity of the astronomical calculations effected with its help. Cardinal Bellarmine had, however, already recognised this when he warned Galileo's pupils to regard the Copernican doctrine only as hypothetical, and not as the sole truth.
In other words, the scientific rationalist, invoking the very latest scientific views, says something that I for one should never have dreamed of saying: that Galileo was as wrong as he was right; or at least that he was no more right than he was wrong, and no more right than his opponents were right. This seems to me a very amazing remark to appear in a book by an ordinary modern sceptic. Anyhow, it is a remark that will not be found in any book by me, or any of those who are regarded as religious reactionaries.
Let nobody go away and say that I have made the remark. Let nobody wail aloud that I say the Solar System is a Solar Myth. I never interfered with the Solar System. I never disorganised the sun and moon; I never in my life gave the planets or the fixed stars the least cause for uneasiness. Copernicus and Newton are good enough for me. I only say the sun must be a very strange star, and must stand in a very strange relation to a very strange planet or satellite, if any sane sceptic can really say that it is just as true that the sun goes round the earth as that the earth goes round the sun. The real truth, which he has in mind, is probably some very subtle mathematical relation, to which both of those contrary images are merely relative. The only effect on me, at the moment, is a merely imaginative, or even a merely artistic effect. It makes the sun much more extraordinary; and it was extraordinary enough before. I have not the faintest intention of meddling with these problems in the higher world of mathematics. I only say that the immediate effect of them on the fancy is almost to bring back the sun into the world of mythology. In that sense, the sun is much more of a Sun Myth; it is at least a Sun Mystery.

[GKC ILN July 11, 1931 CW35:553-5]
St. Robert Bellarmine, pray for us, and for all scientists!

PS: The details I have mentioned about Galileo can be found in books by Jaki and other sources. There are two surprising things we ought to learn from all this: (1) Galileo was right - about the religious issue. St. Augustine had answered the matter about 1000 years before. (2) The Church was right - about the science. Galileo didn't check his work, didn't ask for help, didn't take advantage of the work of others in his field. Hence, let us remember that we need to work together, carefully, and humbly: "The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind." [GKC, The Defendant 75]

One more thing: the unarguable proof about the rotational motion of the earth was provided in 1851 by an experiment in a former Paris church with a pendulum... and that experiment was done by a Catholic - Léon Foucault. (For details, see Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Scienceby Karl A. Kneller, with an introduction by S.L. Jaki.) One of the curious links to GKC is that the famous ILN (Illustrated London News) carried four articles (with illustrations) of this experiment! Just for reference, proof of the earth's motion around the sun was provided in 1838 when Bessel published his measurements of the parallax of 61 Cygni.


At 17 September, 2008 17:05, Blogger Jeff Miller said...

Plus Galileo taught as fact what was not even scientifically proven until long after his death.

Once on Catholic Answers with just a minute left in the show a caller asked Jimmy Akin what he thought of Galileo and he said he was a jerk. Pretty funny short answers, but he was pretty much a prideful jerk that could have easily prevented all the problem and still taught what he said as theory.

At 04 October, 2008 08:11, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay!! i don't if u can change something that been believed for over 1000 yrs but its a good piece of writing!


Post a Comment

<< Home