Galileo Antichrist A Biography by Michael White – pure reason versus fear of thinking

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

Galileo was a man of remarkable intelligence with the misfortune to be born at a time of intense religious bigotry. Nowadays he would no doubt be a media celebrity explaining and debating his many theories, a multi-millionaire through the sale of his inventions and a Nobel prize-winner to boot.

Instead, in the understandable desire to avoid life imprisonment in his old age and possible burning as a heretic, he was browbeaten into a humiliating refutation of his support for the theory of Copernicus that the earth rotates in orbit round a static sun. His scientific approach, based on observable evidence and mathematical calculations foundered on the Catholic Church’s arbitrary insistence on the immutable truth of Aristotle’s flawed deductive reasoning that an all-powerful God kept the sun and planets orbiting round the earth. The supreme irony is that Aristotle was a “heathen” Greek. Another is that Galileo might have avoided punishment if he had been prepared to escape to a Protestant country like the Netherlands or England, even stayed in the more tolerant city of Venice rather than throw in his lot with the Medicis of Florence, who were less prepared to stand up to the Pope.

In this fascinating account, which makes science comprehensible even to a reader with very limited prior knowledge, the author has a tendency to try to capture our imagination with a good deal of speculation. The most significant example of this is his support for a recent theory that the heresy for which Galileo was convicted was in fact a cynical distraction from the issue which really concerned the somewhat unstable Pope Urban VIII and the fanatical Jesuits at the heart of the Vatican. This was that Galileo’s nascent views on the existence and nature of atoms threatened the belief at the heart of Catholic doctrine, which sets it apart from Protestantism: namely, that in Holy Communion, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, whilst maintaining their original physical appearance.
Although widely admired in his lifetime, Galileo was no saint. As a young man, he was known as “the Wrangler” for his argumentative approach. Never backward in asserting his intelligence and his contempt for those of lesser intellect who contradicted him, he accumulated a number of enemies who were eager to play a part in his ultimate downfall. To gain a teaching post at the University of Padua, he was prepared to give a lecture estimating the dimensions of Lucifer, a topic he must surely have regarded as somewhat ludicrous.

His curiosity ranged widely to include radical thinking on the behaviour of pendulums, the speed of falling objects, even the cause of the tides, where his thinking was in error. He showed entrepreneurial skills in commercialising his invention of the mathematical compass, a widely used tool for making calculations, driven by the need to support an extended family including his feckless brother with a growing brood of children. Despite being an excellent communicator, Galileo detested teaching: he out-manoeuvred a rival to corner the market in another invention with practical application, one of the first telescopes, and used it as a means of gaining a plum post in the Florence of the Medicis, one of the conditions being that he could give up teaching.

The telescope enabled him to view the moons orbiting Jupiter and the “crackled and wavy” surface of a moon which the Church insisted was a perfect, smooth sphere: Galileo’s critics argued that, if it was covered in mountains and craters, it must be contained in a translucent layer which would make it the “right” shape. It is not surprising that Galileo presented his arguments in debates in which foolish arguments were demolished, but when the “fall guy” voicing views held by the Pope was named Simplicio, based on the Italian word for simpleton, he was clearly sailing to close to the wind.

Galileo’s fateful trial is covered in some detail in translations of a tortuous procedure involving legalistic language and specious theological argument which despite being somewhat dry has the power to enrage the modern reader over the injustice of the situation. Yet with successors like Newton to build on his work, the genie could never be returned to the bottle.

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