Book Excerpt: Galileo and the Science Deniers | Closer to Truth

In his new book, Galileo and the Science Deniers, astrophysicist, bestselling author and Closer To Truth contributor Mario Livio provides a fresh interpretation of the life of Galileo Galilei, one of history's greatest and most fascinating scientists, that sheds new light on his discoveries and how he was challenged by science deniers. "We really need this story now, because we're living through the next chapter of science denial" (Bill McKibben).

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Chapter 1

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Galileo’s journey as a scientist started in 1583, when he dropped out of medical school and began to study mathematics. By 1590, at the age of twenty-six he already had the audacity to criticize the teachings on motion of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, according to which things moved because of a built-in impetus. About thirteen years later, following a series of ingenious experiments with inclined planes and pendulums, Galileo formulated the very first “laws of motion” concerning free fall, even though he would not publish those until 1638.

He presented his first breathtaking discoveries with the telescope in 1610, and five years later, in a famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, expressed his risky opinion that the biblical language had to be interpreted in light of what science reveals, and not the other way around.

In spite of his personal disagreements with some orthodox church dicta, as late as May 18, 1630, Galileo was still received in Rome as an honored guest by Pope Urban VIII, and he left the city under the impression that the Pope had approved the printing of his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems after only a few minor corrections and a change of title. Overestimating the strength of his friendship with the pontiff and underestimating the fragility of the delicate psychological and political position of the Pope in that turbulent post-Reformation era, Galileo continued to believe that reason would prevail. “Facts, which at first seem improbable, will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty,” he once wrote.

Imprudently neglecting his own safety, he proceeded to get the book to print, and, after a rather convoluted series of events, the book finally went to press on February 21, 1632. Whereas in the preface to the book Galileo purported to discuss the Earth’s motion merely as a “mathematical caprice,” the text itself had a very different flavor. In fact, Galileo taunted and derided those who still refused to accept the Copernican view in which the Earth revolved around the Sun.

Einstein said about this book:

[It] is a mine of information for anyone interested in the cultural history of the Western world and its influence upon economic and political development. A man is here revealed who possesses the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking against the host of those who, relying on the ignorance of the people and the indolence of teachers in priest’s and scholar’s garb, maintain and defend their positions of authority.

For Galileo, however, the publication of the Dialogo, as it is commonly referred to, marked the beginning of the end of his life, though not of his fame. He was tried by the inquisition in 1633, pronounced a suspected heretic, forced to recant his Copernican ideas, and eventually placed under house arrest. The Dialogo was put on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books, where it remained until 1835.

In 1634 Galileo suffered another devastating blow with the death of his beloved daughter Sister Maria Celeste. He still managed to write one more book, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences (commonly known as Discorsi), which was smuggled out of Italy to Holland and published there in Leiden. The book summarized much of his life’s work, from his early days in Pisa, some fifty years earlier. Although his own travel was forbidden, Galileo was allowed to have occasional visitors. One of his callers during that late period of his life was the young John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame.

Galileo died in 1642 at his villa in Arcetri, near Florence, after having been blind and bedridden for a while. But as we shall clearly see in this book, his science and the tale of Galileo and his times resonate strongly today. There is a striking similarity between some of the religious, social, economic, and cultural problems that a person in the seventeenth century had to struggle with, and those we encounter in the twenty-first century. Indeed, whose story is better to tell than that of Galileo if we are to shine light on current concerns such as the continuing debate about the proper realms of science and religion, the support for the teaching of creationist ideas, and the uninformed attacks on intellectualism and expertise? The blatant dismissal in some circles of the research on climate change, the mocking attitude directed at the funding of basic research, and the elimination of budgets for the arts and public radio in the United States are only a few of the manifestations of such assaults.

There are additional reasons why Galileo and his seventeenth-century world are extremely relevant for us and our cultural needs. An important one is the apparent schism between the sciences and the humanities first identified and exposed in a 1959 talk (and later a book) by British physical chemist and novelist  C. P. Snow, with his coinage of the term “the Two Cultures.” Snow presented his concern with great clarity: “A good many times, I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.” At the same time, Snow pointed out, had he asked those very same erudite essayists to define mass or acceleration—to him, the scientific equivalent of “Can you read?”—for nine in ten of the highly educated, he might as well have been speaking a foreign language. On the whole, Snow noted that during the 1930s and onward, literary scholars started referring to themselves as “the intellectuals,” thereby excluding scientists from this coterie. Some of those intellectuals even resented the penetration of scientific methods into areas not traditionally associated with the exact sciences, such as sociology, linguistics, and the arts. While surely not as extreme, their stance was not entirely dissimilar from the indignation expressed by church officials who reacted against what they regarded as Galileo’s unwelcome intrusion into theology.

A few scholars argue that the problem of the two cultures is less acute today than it was when Snow gave his lecture. Others, however, claim that a proper dialogue between the two cultures is still mostly absent. Historian of science David Wootton, for example, feels that the problem has even deepened. In his book The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, Wootton writes: “History of science, far from serving as a bridge between the arts and sciences, nowadays offers the scientists a picture of themselves that most of them cannot recognize.”

The border between art and science was largely blurred during the Renaissance, with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, Albrecht Dürer, and Filippo Brunelleschi having been involved in serious scientific research or in mathematics. Consequently, Galileo himself embodied an integration of the humanities and the sciences that can serve as a model to be examined, even if not easily emulated today. Consider, for instance, that at age twenty-four, he presented two lectures on the topic of “On the Shape, Location, and Size of Dante’s Inferno,” or the fact that even Galileo’s science involved, to a great extent, the visual arts. For example, in his book The Sidereal Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius), a booklet of sixty pages that was rushed to print in 1610, he tells his scientific story of the Moon through a series of wonderful wash drawings, probably relying on the lessons in art he had received from the painter Cigoli at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in Florence.

Perhaps most important, Galileo was the pioneer and star of advancing the new art of experimental science. He realized that he could test or suggest theories by artificially manipulating various terrestrial phenomena. He was also the first scientist whose vision and scientific outlook incorporated both methods and results that were applicable to all branches of science.

Galileo made numerous discoveries, but, in four areas, he literally revolutionized the field: astronomy and astrophysics; the laws of motion and mechanics; the astonishing relationship between mathematics and physical reality (dubbed in 1960 by physicist Eugene Wigner “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”); and experimental science. Largely through his unparalleled intuition and partly through his training in chiaroscuro—the art of representing three dimensions in two through a clever use of light and shadows—he was able to transform what would have otherwise been simple visual experiences into intellectual conclusions about the heavens.

Following Galileo’s numerous observations and the confirmation of his findings by other astronomers, no one could cogently argue anymore that what one saw through the telescope must have been an optical illusion and not a faithful reproduction of reality. The only defense remaining to those obstinately refusing to accept the conclusions implied by the accumulating weight of empirical facts and scientific reasoning was to reject the interpretation of the results almost solely on the basis of religious or political ideology. If such a reaction sounds disturbingly similar to the present-day denial by some people of the reality of climate change, or of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, it’s because it is!

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From Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio

Copyright © 2020 by Mario Livio. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

Book Excerpt: Galileo and the Science Deniers

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