Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen

I, Galileo tells the story of one of history's most famous scientists, Galileo Galilei, in his own words accompanied by the beautiful, bold illustrations of author-illustrator Bonnie Christensen.

The story opens with an elderly, blind Galileo reminiscing about his life beginning with his childhood. Galileo was the oldest child in a large family. He was inquisitive and wondered about the natural world around him. His father taught Galileo music and mathematics but at age eleven he was sent to a monastery for a more formal education. When Galileo showed interest in becoming a monk his father had him brought back to Pisa to be educated in to become a doctor. However, Galileo was captivated by mathematics but like his father he often had disagreements with others. This resulted in him leaving the university. Galileo moved to Florence where he began teaching math and giving lectures. His lectures were so popular that he was offered a teaching job at the University of Pisa.

Galileo continued his questioning ways and made enemies by challenging some of the ideas the beloved philosopher, Aristotle had proposed many centuries earlier. He lost his job at Pisa but was soon hired by the University of Padua where Galileo began to conduct experiments and invent new things. His most important improvement was to a Dutch invention, the telescope, a new type of spyglass that greatly magnified objects far away. Galileo worked to perfect his telescope making it more powerful and when he turned it to look at the heavens he made some astonishing discoveries. These discoveries resulted in Galileo securing the patronage of the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de' Medici.

Devoting himself full time to experiments, Galileo came to believe that the sun and planets did NOT revolve around the earth but rather the earth and other planets revolved around the sun. He made this deduction by observing the phases of the planet Venus which is situated closer to the sun and shows phases just like the moon.

This deduction was in complete opposition to what Aristotle had claimed and what the Catholic Church supported. In 1616, the Catholic church ruled that teaching the earth revolved around the sun was heresy and Galileo was ordered to stop. This model of our solar system was called the Copernican theory after Copernicus who first proposed this theory. Copernicus had no way to prove his theory, but Galileo's observations suggested that his theory was probably right.

For seven years Galileo did not teach this theory but when his friend, Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban Galileo thought he would be able to write again about heliocentrism. According to the author, Galileo wrote and published Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems which outraged the pope because he believed Galileo had portrayed him as a fool in the book. Galileo was ordered to face the Inquisition in Rome and was sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of his life. The book ends with Galileo making that comment that the truth will find the light - implying of course that science eventually defeated the ignorance of the Catholic Church.

Christensen's picture book is simply written and of course treats the Galileo affair in a basic manner. However, there are some errors in the story as presented by Bonnie Christensen. Galileo's run-in with the Catholic church was more complex than portrayed in this book as both sides were at fault to some degree. The fallout of the Galileo affair remains; the Catholic church and religion in general are now seen as antithetical towards science. What follows is a summary of George Sim Johnston's discussion of the events in his book, The Galileo Affair published by Scepter Press.

The Catholic church believes that faith and science are not at odds. The church completely supported the work of Nicholas Copernicus who surprisingly was NOT the first to suggest that the earth and other heavenly bodies revolved around the sun. This was suggested in ancient times by the Greeks. The church supported Aristotle's theory mainly because it seemed to be supported by scripture and scripture was interpreted more rigorously in past centuries than now. Also science in the time of Copernicus was not interested in determining scientific truth but in making sure that ideas and theories previously presented (such as Aristotle and Ptolemy's theory of the sun revolving around the earth) were preserved. Scientific reality was not considered important.

However Copernicus turned this way of explaining the natural world on its head; in fact he was afraid to publish his book not because he feared the church (which actually supported his work) but because he feared his fellow academics.

Galileo learned of a remarkable new instrument, the telescope which had been made by the Dutch. He made his own and soon made many interesting discoveries as Bonnie Christensen mentions in her book; the discovery of the moon's true surface, four satellites of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. A leading Jesuit astronomer, Christopher Clavius was at first skeptical but soon verified Galileo's observations. Even Pope Paul III was interested and agreeable to his theory.

But the disagreeable nature of Galileo that Christensen highlights in her story came back to haunt the scientist. He became determined to force the Copernican view of the solar system onto a public that was not ready to accept a very different cosmic view. According to George Sim Johnston of "The Galileo Affair",

"But Galileo was intent on ramming Copernicus down the throat of Christendom. The irony is that when he started his campaign, he enjoyed almost universal good will among the Catholic hierarchy. But he managed to alienate almost everybody with his caustic manner and aggressive tactics. His position gave the Church authorities no room to maneuver: they either had to accept Copernicanism as a fact (even though it had not been proved) and reinterpret Scripture accordingly; or they had to condemn it. He refused the reasonable third position which the Church offered him: that Copernicanism might be considered a hypothesis, one even superior to the Ptolemaic system, until further proof could be adduced."

With Galileo moving the controversy into the realm of scripture, the church had no choice but to act. In the context of the times, post-Reformation, where protestants focused on the private interpretation of scripture, it seemed as though Copernicanism was in direct opposition to the strict interpretation of scripture that the Catholic church held. Either scripture had to be re-interpreted or the theory was wrong. Since there was no way to prove Copernicanism at this time, Galileo could not present it as fact. Why he chose to force his theory into the realm of scripture is probably a function of his obstinate, prideful nature.

The first two submissions to Rome resulted in his case being dismissed. Then Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine wrote Galileo a letter requesting he either prove his theory (which was perfectly acceptable to hold) or to leave the matter alone. Eventually in 1616, at his first trial, Galileo was told to neither "hold or defend" his theory which he abided by. However, in his file there was also a mysterious and controversial directive stating that he could not discuss it either, which Galileo claimed he was unaware of. When he published his book, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems this violated that term. But even worse, the book seemed to mock Urban VIII for his scientific views. At his second trial in 1633 which did not see Galileo torture or recant his theory, he was judged to be "vehemently suspected of heresy". Galileo's condemnation, according to Johnston was unjust because Copernicanism was never judged to be heretical. In fact,"in 1822, at the behest of Pius VII, the Holy Office granted an imprimatur to the work of Canon Settele, in which Copernicanism was presented as a physical fact and no longer as an hypothesis."

Sadly the church has never seemed to recover from fallout as a result of the Galileo affair despite that fact that many Catholic scientists were responsible for the development of several scientific disciplines throughout the 1800's. Modern science considers religion hostile to science. It is not.

For those who might want to read George Sim Johnston's piece in its entirety, please see The Galileo Affair.

Another excellent piece is The Dispute Between Galileo and the Catholic Church by Donald DeMarco.

Galileo's voice in I, Galileo, is accurately portrayed as belligerent and arrogant. Galileo's stubbornness and determination to aggravate ecclesiastical authorities comes across in this telling.  However, there are several inaccuracies in I, Galileo. First, according to Johnston, Galileo never did conduct the experiment with two objects from the Tower of Pisa. It is widely held that this was a "thought experiment". Secondly, the church never did rule that Copernicanism was heresy. And thirdly, Galileo was not imprisoned, but lived comfortably near Florence in a home. These inaccuracies pretty much cancel the simplicity of the story and the accurate voice of Galileo in this book.

Christensen's book has a Chronology and a list of Galileo's Experiments and Galileo's Inventions and Improvements, Astronomic Discoveries, a Glossary, Bibliography and Websites at the back of the book.

Book Details:
I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen
New York: Alfred A Knopf    2012

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