Galileo: Heretic?

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Galileo Galilei is well known by many, but it is hard to pin point the exact reason behind this apparent fame, he became famous in terms of early empirical science late on in his life, when he wrote his text on the dynamics of rigid bodies – ‘Dialogues concerning the Two New Sciences' which is a forerunner of Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion. However this branch of science was not his passion or what he spent most of his life arguing and theorising about. Galileo was interested in the Copernican theory of a Heliocentric system, however Galileo lived in a time when the Catholic Church was very powerful and controlled a large amount of Europe, Galileo fought for his beliefs for twenty years (1613-1633) but was branded guilty of suspicion of heresy by the inquisition. A heretic is someone who believes in or publicises heresy, which is an opinion contrary to what is normally accepted, in this case by the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

In writing this essay I intend to analyse the reasoning why the Catholic Church found such a verdict, I will look into whether the Church just had a fundamental disregard for all scientific research, maybe due to the problems of the lack of unity of the Catholic Church. Were the Church right to find such a verdict in view of the times they were living in? This should then lead me on to look at the effects of the negative spin put onto the Copernican system by the Catholics.

Galileo never finished his university education due to the costs involved however he did manage to become a lecturer at Pisa, where apparently he performed his famous velocity experiment of dropping to differently weighted object off the Leaning Tower showing that they land at the same time, disproving Aristotle's theory. He later takes a post at the University of Padua which he won instead of Giordano Bruno, who was later executed (1600) as a heritic for his belief in the Copernican System , Galileo stayed in Padua for eighteen years. Whilst there Galileo develops the telescope, which he points towards the Sky, as well as selling it to the Venetian Senate for military purposes at the small cost of a lifetime professorship at Padua at double his salary! Galileo later leaves Padua to work for the Duke of Tuscany; he is even at one point received by the Jesuit astronomers of Rome; however this can only last so long, four years later Galileo is ordered to cease his support of Heliocentricity by a Cardinal Bellarmine.

Was Galileo really charged because his Science was wrong, rather than misunderstood? If we look at his idea of the Heliocentric system, this would have defied all types of common sense of the time, how many years would people have believed that the Earth is at the Centre of the universe? Probably at least two millennia since the time of Aristotle, it is impossible to change deep seated ‘fact' within people's minds overnight. When Kepler sent Galileo a copy of the Cosmic Mystery in 1597, Galileo replied stating that he believed in the Heliocentric system too but ‘he would not risk publishing such views so long as the public consists of dangerous fools who have no concept of the pursuit of truth and who might ridicule and perhaps even persecute those who have.'

The church weren't ignorant of the possibility that Galileo maybe right they just wanted some proof, which is a fair point, this can be seen in a letter sent by the Chief of the inquisition and the head of the Jesuits, Cardinal Bellarmine, on 12th April 1615.

‘Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth is the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the Earth but the Earth circles the Sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown to me.'

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