The Language of God

The tower of Pisa

The tower of Pisa

…is Mathematics.  So thought Galileo Galilei, a devout  Catholic who nonetheless earned the wrath of the Church to which he was so loyal, and which would ultimately apologize in the year 2000 for its trial and persecution of Galileo.  Yet no man symbolized the movement from the age of faith to the age of reason more than this Tuscan mathematician.    Today we went on a day trip to Pisa, visitig the tower (but not paying the 15 Euro to climb it), and saw a guy parachute down from the top successfully, and I believe he eluded the police.  The class took pictures and we had a nice group lunch.  Pisa isn’t a cultural or artistic center of the import of Siena or Lucca, and it was only because of intense  pressure from the students that we went there.  However, for me it provided an excellent segue to tomorrow’s visit to the Science Museum in Florence by allowing a focus on Galileo, who first lived and worked in Pisa, but ended up in Florence.  

Galileo is an amazing individual, a man whose work and life fascinate me.   I apologize that this blog entry is long (and I cut out a bunch of stuff about his daughter and other life tidbits).    The class seemed a tad amused by my enthusiasm for Galileo’s story, both in terms of his scientific brilliance and political ineptness.  I can’t help but write about it in my blog as well.

After Thomas Aquinas convinced the church of the legitimacy of integrating reason and faith, bringing Aristotle’s logic and teachings into church doctrine, it was probably inevitable that someone like Galileo would come along and use reason to challenge the Church.   The Church tried to maintain control by insisting that Aristotle was an authority who should not be questioned, and using reason in the form of Aristotelean scholasticism, which honored time tested knowledge and distrusted new ideas or critical thought.   However, Aristotle  had been an experimenter who challenged tradition and, as Galileo would himself note, Galileo’s behavior was true to Aristotle’s teachings.

From the tower of Pisa, Galileo first irritated authorities and his fellow faculty by dropping differently weighted and sized materials and noting that they fell at the same speed.  This went against Aristotle, and soon he moved north to Padua, where the atmosphere was more tolerant.  Challenges to Aristotelean scholasticism had already emerged in northern Europe, and the protestant reformation was in full swing.   If Galileo had remained in Padua, closer to more secular Venice, he probably could have avoided arrest.

The students today had a traditional view of Galileo’s problem: that he thought the sun was the center of the universe rather than the earth, and that the church therefore considered this heretical and demanded he recant.  Galileo did, but he and the church were enemies, he was fighting for science against superstition.  This traditional view is off base; the reality is much more complex.  Galileo was and remained a devout Catholic, he just thought the church leaders were wrong in their interpretation of scripture.   He also knew the Pope personally and many high level church officials.  Most of them actually believed that Galileo’s view of cosmology was correct, and knew that the Aristotelean approach was wrong.  Their reasons for silencing Galileo were political rather than scientific.  So what happened?

Galileo was in Padua (near Venice) for 18 years where he became convinced that mathematics allows us to understand the underlying order of the universe, thus uncovering the mind and language of God.  That wasn’t itself a challenge to the Church, so long as he didn’t go against established Church doctrines.   Galileo first moved in a direction that would create problems after he heard of an invention from the Netherlands. Hans Lippershey of Middleburg invented lenses that allowed one to see distant objects as if they were nearer.   Galileo was also a lensmaker, and when he heard of this discovery, he wasted no time in developing and improving his own telescope. This was popular with the business people of Venice (who could use it to see arriving ships before their competitors could), but Galileo’s troubles started when he pointed it skyward. In 1610, he noticed that Jupiter had its own satellites, something Aristotelean thought considered impossible.

Galileo wrote Sidereus Nunicus or “Starry messenger,” which he dedicated to Count Cosimo II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He called the moons of Jupiter “Medician Stars.” He was then given an honorary Chair of Mathematics at the University of Pisa, something which irritated his former foes there.  There were a number of efforts to deny Galileo’s claims, calling the satellites illusions or the result of flaws in his telescope. But he also discovered the phases of Venus, and sunspots, the latter proving that the celestial realm was not immutable (contrary to Aristotle’s claims).   Galileo would move down to Florence to work under the protection of the powerful Medici family — which unfortunately also brought him closer to Rome and within reach of the Church.

Galileo came to champion the ideas of Nikolai Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, born on February 19, 1473 in Thorn, Poland. Copernicus studied law, math and astronomy at The University of Bologna in Italy, and then in 1514 took on a task given by Pope Leo, aimed at figuring out how best to determine the ecclesiastical calendar. He did this by moving the sun to the center of the universe, and having earth as a planet that circles the sun. Though this was considered heretical, Copernicus put this forth only as an hypothesis or a model that could help solve problems involving the calendar. Officially, the earth was still considered the center of the universe.

Galileo said that his telescope and observations made it quite obvious that Aristotle and the official church view was wrong.   In a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina he wrote that if scripture and human experience contradict each other, then our interpretation of scripture must be wrong.   That view, not his belief in the Copernican universe, led to Galileo’s undoing.   Politically, the Church could not tolerate such a message coming from not only within the faith, but from someone living so close to Rome.

The Church was, after all, under attack. In England King James was making Catholics take loyalty oaths. In Germany the reformation was in full swing, and the Church had already enacted the counter-reformation coming out of the Council of Trent. In 1618 the Thirty Years war began, which would decimate much of Europe, and lead to the downfall of the Church as dominant political force in Europe.   The essence of the protestant reformation in Europe was that Luther claimed that each individual had a personal  relationship with God, and that the meaning of scripture is therefore personal, not mediated by the Church. This was the most significant challenge of the protestant revolt, and Galileo seemed to be veering in that direction.  He was saying that through his experiments he, a lay individual, could prove that scripture was falsely interpreted, and that the Church should follow him.   Church leaders tried to convince Galileo that he should give them time to initiate the change in interpretation.   Galileo was a man of principle and not politics, and pushed forward nonetheless.   Galileo argued that nature and Scripture cannot be in contradiction. If the Bible says that God commanded the sun to stop in the sky, and we know from observation that the earth rotates around the sun, then it’s clear that Scripture is not wrong, but our understanding of scripture is off; clearly it is not a scientific truth that scripture gives, but common parlance, not meant to be taken as science.

Pope Urban VIII, a former supporter of Galileo, suggested he write a book giving both arguments and then conclude that it’s best to follow the Church’s lead.  Galileo did so, but in a way that made the supporter of the church position — Simplice — appear an idiot, while the supporter of Galileo’s position won every argument easily.  In a Dialogue On The Great World Systems Galileo infuriated Urban VIII, who felt personally insulted.  Galileo was summoned to Rome for trial, and only under threat of torture did he recant, being sent back to Florence  to finish his life, banned from writing anything more.   He ignored the ban and one of his most important works came out after his trial, but he remained under house arrest in Florence until he died in 1642, the very year Isaac Newton was born. 

While Newton gets the credit for developing classical physics, Galilaeo really started the efforts and set up the kind of thinking that would make Newton possible.  He is the figure personifying the move from the age of Faith to the age of Reason.   He  was a man of reason who was devout in his faith; he remained angry at Urban VIII and other Church leaders, but never doubted his faith.   He was angry at men, after all — not God or the Church!   If he had been politically more adept he would have realized that with the protestant reformation in full force he was presenting a challenge that cut to the core of Church legitimacy.   He may have been more diplomatic, and avoided the trial and punishment, giving the Church time to initiate on its own the change in Biblical interpretation.    Would that have lessened his accomplishments or his place in history?    He still would be known as a great scientific innovator, but not have come to symbolize the idea of science as a challenge to faith.  And, given that he was absolutley convinced that science and faith are completely compatible, he probably would have preferred that legacy.   On the other hand, he did not believe truth should be silenced simply because of tradition.

Sitting here in Florence, listening to the Vespas and traffic out the window, I can’t help thinking about how the renaissance gave way to the Baroque (something Galileo’s father, a musician named Vincenzio, was very much a part of) and science pushed us towards the modern.  We in the West are very much shaped by the history of this beautiful and vibrant Tuscan city.    The students went to the market during a break, I spent the time typing this blog entry.  Time for dinner!

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on February 19, 2009 - 18:42

    I like Galileo’s thoughts on this. Many things can be explained by mathematics. And just because we don’t always see the logic in things, doesn’t mean the logic isn’t there or wasn’t put there by God for us to discover when we are ready.

  2. #2 by Eve on February 21, 2009 - 21:08

    Scott, I loved this article and especially enjoyed your enthusiasm for and admiration of Galileo. There’s something beautiful and thrilling about getting to know an historical figure with such intensity that our enthusiasm overcomes us and makes us teachers and even apologists for that person. One semester I immersed myself in van Gogh, and of course Jung is one of my personal heroes. I think from time to time about how fantastic it would be to meet them at some other-worldly dinner. And so your enthusiasm for and interest in Galileo flows out from your page and inspires me. Thanks for that.

  1. The Age of Reason « World in Motion

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