Galileo Galilei It is known that he was on trial because, based on astronomical observations through his telescopes, he insisted that the Copernican model of the solar system was correct. The earth turned around the sun, not the other way round, contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church at that time. He was never officially charged with heresy, but was forced to withdraw his stance. Legend has it that he mumbled afterwards: “E pur si muove“” (“And yet it moves”) what the earth means.
As with many such legends, it’s probably too good to be true. “It would have been crazy for Galileo to say that to the Inquisitor,” Astrophysicist Mario Livio told Ars. Livio is the author of a new biography of the famous scientist, Galileo and the science deniersand when he researched the book, he was intrigued by the longstanding debate over whether Galileo really spoke these words or not. There was a separate scientific work on his results.
The earliest biography of Galileo was written by his protégé Vincenzo Viviana in 1655-1656, without mentioning the sentence. According to Livio, the first mention in print is contained in a single paragraph of the 1757 book. The Italian library, written by Giuseppe Baretti, over 100 years after Galileo’s death. That would indicate that history is a myth. But then a science historian named Antonio Favaro spent four decades studying Galileo’s life and work and publishing a massive volume. The works of Galileo Galilei. In 1911 he also published several articles detailing his efforts to determine the origin of the famous phrase.
That year, Favaro received a letter from a Belgian man named Jules Van Belle, who claimed shortly after Galileo’s death in 1642 that he owned a painting that depicted Galileo in prison and held a nail in his right hand. Earth moves around the sun . Under it was the famous motto. The painting was attributed to a Spanish painter named Bartolomé Esteban Murilloand Van Belle believed that it might once have belonged to an army commander named Ottavio Piccolomini, the brother of the Archbishop of Siena. Galileo served the first six months of his house arrest in the archbishop’s house.
This opened up the possibility that Galileo had said those words, just not in front of the Inquisitor. However, the painting has never been examined by independent art historians. When Livio decided more than a century later to continue Favaro’s work, he found that no one knew the current location of the Murillo painting. He consulted with four art experts who specialize in Murillo’s art and determined from photographs on the canvas that it was not the work of the Spanish artist.
After searching for various clues for about a year, Livio finally rediscovered Van Belle’s painting. It was sold in 2007 by a descendant of Van Belle to a private collector. The auction house had dated the painting to the 19th century. So it is much more likely that the famous phrase is just a legend that appeared sometime in the mid-18th century. However, a final decision can only be made if the new owner agrees to have the painting examined by art historians.
Nevertheless: “Even if Galileo never spoke these words, they have a certain relevance for our current difficult times, in which even verifiable facts are attacked by science deniers.” Livio wrote recently at Scientific American. “Galileo’s legendary intellectual defiance – despite what you believe is the fact – is becoming more important than ever.” Ars sat down with Livio to find out more.
Ars: Maybe Galileo never said, “And yet it is moving.” But one of the best known real quotes attributed to For Galileo it says: “The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.”
Livio: That was one of his incredible intuitions. That is so natural for us today. We still don’t understand it exactly, but it is very natural that all laws of physics are written as mathematical expressions or equations. But in those days these laws were in no way written. How did he come to this intuition that everything is written in the language of mathematics? It is absolutely unbelievable for me that he thought about it. In fact, he formulated the very first laws of physics, with the possible exception of Archimedes.
Ars Technica: Galileo is one of the most famous scientists in history and so many books about his life and work have been published. What made you write your own attitude?
Mario Livio: One reason for this is that all of Galileo’s existing biographies, at least the reputable ones, were mainly written by science historians or science authors. None was written by an active researcher in astronomy or astrophysics. So I thought maybe I could put his discoveries in the context of what we know today. A second reason is that the best biographies out there are not as accessible to a general audience. They are scientific biographies. So my goal was to write a slightly shorter, more accessible, and more focused biography, but I did my best to still keep it completely correct.
After all, I always knew that, but it has only recently occurred to me that Galileo was fighting against science deniers at the end of the day and unfortunately we are encountering a widespread denial of science today. So I thought this would be an important book to write. A fight that Galileo waged 400 years ago and which ultimately really won. It seems that we have to fight somehow again.
Ars: Galileo is still a strong symbol of intellectual freedom (scientific or otherwise). Why has Galileo awakened our imagination for so long?
Livio: There are many reasons for that. Galileo by giving the Dialogue about the two main systems in the worldattracted a lot of attention. Because of his discoveries in astronomy, he was perhaps the most famous scientist in Europe. So his book drew the wrath of the Inquisition and the Pope, and he was brought to justice, humiliated and suspected of heresy and put under house arrest for eight and a half years. It’s pretty incredible. We’re in the curfew for a few months now and we’re going crazy.
So he became a symbol of the struggle for intellectual freedom. It was not, as is sometimes portrayed, the struggle between science and religion. Galileo was a religious person like everyone else at the time. His whole point of view was that the Bible is not a science book, so we should not interpret literally what is said there as if it were scientific facts. “The Bible was written for our salvation,” he said, “not as a science book.”
“His tongue could be sharp and his pen could be sharper.”
If there is an obvious conflict between a literal interpretation of the text in the script and the statements of experiments or observations, it means that we have not understood and need to change the interpretation. As long as science’s conclusions regarding physical reality are accepted without religious beliefs being interfered with and no verifiable facts being denounced, there can be no conflict between the two areas.
It also had to do with his personal characteristics, of which stubbornness played the main role, and with a high degree of self-righteousness. Galileo advocated that there are only three things to do to determine truths about the world: experiments, observations, and arguments based on data from them. He also said that he did not believe that the same God who gave us our senses, intelligence and reasoning wanted us to give up their use. This could make his tongue sharp and his pen even sharper.
Ars: Conversely, various cranks and crackpots turned Galileo’s example into the exact opposite of what Galileo stood for. I am reminded of it Carl Sagan’s observation: “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the clown.”
Livio: This is the Galileo error. It is really a complete turn of logic. There are people who say, “Look, Galileo was alone among all the people who didn’t agree with him, and he turned out to be right. So if I have my opinion and it’s against everyone else, I have Also right.” But that’s really not the case. Galileo was right because he was right, not because he was alone against everyone else. Most people who are alone against everyone else are wrong. Placing Galileo on trial, guilty of him and sentencing him to house arrest would have been wrong, even if he had been wrong about his solar system model. He expressed a different scientific view. So what?
Ars: Science builds on what was before, and we’ve come a long way since Galileo. So let’s talk about the connection between past and present in relation to his work.
Livio: Galileo was not always right. For example, it was very foreign to him to think of forces that act mysteriously over distances because he was a mechanical person. So he didn’t really think about gravity as we think today, not even as Newton thought about it. For example, Kepler wrote that the moon may have an impact on the tides, which is correct. Galileo ignored this. He proposed this model, which had to do with the speed of the earth and its rotation around the sun, combining these two movements to create the tide. This was an interesting mechanical model, only it is wrong and didn’t really work.
He also never accepted Kepler’s elliptical planetary orbits based on the Greeks’ false impressions of perfectly symmetrical things. So he thought orbits should be circles, not ellipses. But when you talk about symmetry, it’s not the symmetry of the forms that counts, but the symmetry of the law. In other words, the orbit can be elliptical, but the ellipse can have any orientation in space.
Trust in science. That is my main message. What is good about science is that it corrects itself. Self-correction sometimes takes a very short time and sometimes a very long time. It can sometimes take decades or even centuries, but eventually it corrects itself. It is generally not advisable to bet against the judgment of science. In a case like climate change or a pandemic, the fate of life on our planet is absolutely crazy.