Price of telling the Truth: Galileo Galilei

Table of Content

1.Intro: Thesis statement
2.Story to Illustrate the Thesis: Galileo
2.1. Who was Galileo?
2.2. What he discovered: Heliocentrism
2.3.The First Warning
2.4.The Satire that pissed off the Roman Catholic
2.5. What happened: Heretic arrested
3.Human nature, the Truth and Socrates
4.Ending

1. Intro: Thesis statement

Today, we live in the age of post-truth politics and journalism where blatant lies are shamelessly told and fake news circulates without being adequately challenged or deterred. Indeed, it is the rightful freedom of expression, however, it raises a critical question: Does one’s freedom of expression that disseminates lies and false information interfere, obstruct and hinder others’ right to know the truth? If individuals unapologetically express their mere opinions and beliefs against scientific truths without validating their grounds or acknowledging the intrinsic falsity and rhetorical inconsistency, any logical thoughts that underpin our Western values, the bedrock of the highly advanced modern civilisations that we enjoy, would fall apart. Indeed, facts are not always appreciated throughout the history, and scientific advances have been not about discoveries per se, but the public, social and juridical acceptance of them, which has, at times, mattered even more. If the truth and a scientific discovery were told, which nonetheless conflicted the status quo or threatened to undermine a dominant institution of a time, such individuals have often been silenced and condemned as a heretic. In this regard, no one’s life is more illustrative than that of Galileo Galilei, an Italian scientist who lived in the 16thcentury Florence.

2. Story to Illustrate the Thesis

2.1. Who was Galileo?

Since Galileo was a little boy, he had an insatiable appetite for satisfying his intellectual curiosity, but perhaps it was the influence of his old man. His father, Vincenzo Galilei, was a well-known lute player, innovative composer and music theorist in Florence. Later, Galileo became an accomplished lutenist himself, but early in his life, from his father, who saw art and science being inseparable, he learned an appreciation for the musical measure of time and rhythm, the value of carefully planned quantitative experimentations, and the healthy scepticism for the established orthodoxies (Gribbin, 2008, 2009). Sensing the enormous intellectual potential in his precocious son, Vincenzo thought that Galileo should be a doctor. For this reason, in 1581, young Galileo was sent to the University of Pisa to study medicine.

One day, while he was still studying medicine, he saw a chandelier swinging in smaller and larger arcs depending on air currents. He noticed that the amount of time that the chandelier took to swing back and forth was about the same as his heartbeat. He further noticed that whether the arc of a swing is large or small, a swing took about the same amount of time in sync with his heartbeat. An idea sparked in his mind. He rushed home and set up two pendulums of equal length and swung one with a small length while the other was swinging with a large sweep. As he expected, both pendulums kept time together. It was a century before the celebrated Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens famously confirmed the tautochrone nature of a swinging pendulum, which led to the invention of an accurate clock.

At the university, Galileo discovered that he had a knack for mathematics, but the truth was that until then, he was deliberately kept away from pursuing mathematics by his father. Vincenzo desperately wanted his bright son to be a doctor that would earn more than a mathematician, as the Galileis had a money issue. After he accidentally attended a lecture on geometry, however, his passion for the subject ignited and was no longer containable. After Galileo’s passionate protest, Vincenzo finally relented and gave his son permission to pursue mathematics and natural science. Galileo experimented with the application of mathematics to the field of natural science and discovered different components of the law of physics, such as speed, velocity and gravity. After obsessively studying physics, he later constructed theories pertaining to the principle of relativity, inertia, projectile motion and so on. During his lifetime, Galileo became one of the most celebrated scientists in Italy.

Aside from being a scientist, he was also a practical engineer. By improving on the existent primordial model of magnifying glasses that were increasingly prevalent in Europe at that time, Galileo invented a telescope. The invention of the telescope was highly beneficial for military purposes, as it enabled naval soldiers to spot adversary warships 1 or 2 hours before their arrival to the shore. For the invention of the telescope that brought to the city of Florence an enormous military advantage, Galileo received instant kudos as well as handsome stipends from the Medici.

2.2. What he discovered: Heliocentrism

Through the lens of his invention, he also observed the sky at night. He was astounded by the mountainous and rugged surface of the Moon as opposed to being smooth as many people believed at that time. And his astronomical discoveries also included Jupiter’s four orbiting moons and sunspots on the Sun. Simultaneously, he began to question why all the stars before his eyes are moving not in the way that he expected. Crucially, some of them looked to be orbiting around the Sun. The Holy Bible says that the Earth is the centre of the universe, which was originally propounded by the 2ndcentury Greek astronomer Ptolemy and subsequently adopted as Christian doctrine. “If the Earth is the centre of the universe, why certain stars do not move accordingly? Which must I believe; what I have been told to believe but cannot see, or what I can see before my own eyes but told not to believe?” wondered Galileo.

Soon, Galileo began to doubt geocentrism, even though he was a devout Christian himself, and his beloved daughter, who was pivotal in his life till late in his career, was a nun. Despite the cognitive dissonance he endured, stemming from the abstract notion championed in the Christian doctrine and the empirical evidence of his observation, he eventually formulated a hypothesis that the Earth is not the centre of the universe but the Sun is. Such was the view previously expressed by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

2.3. The First Warning

Heliocentrism, however, was highly controversial at that time when the dominant paradigm and values all centred around Christianity, and the Holy Scripture was considered as absolute.

Galileo wanted to publish the hypothesis in his paper so he asked the Roman Inquisition, the legal body of the Catholic Church, for permission to publish it. Surprisingly, the paper received a license to publish from the Roman Inquisition, even though the Catholic Church was a strong advocate of the theory underpinning a geocentric universe. The paper was nonetheless published in Florence and received well by the general public.

Subsequently, though, seeing the warm reception that the paper enjoyed, the Inquisition investigated Galileo’s heliocentrism in 1615, eventually to conclude that he was a heretic; a person opposing Church teachings, and guilty of heresy, which, at that time, was a serious crime, and sometimes people were sentenced to death. Galileo was cleared of charges, thanks to Pope Paul V, albeit prohibited from publically propounding his heliocentric belief henceforth.

2.4. The Satire that pissed off the Roman Catholic

Galileo could not tolerate the idea of not being able to tell the truth. He stamped his feet in frustration; “how ridiculous to be restrained from merely stating the truth!” He was the Stephan Hawking of that day, as he enjoyed his illustrious career as a scientist till then. Such a proud man as he was, however, he thought it was more than a matter of a personal pride and was convinced that people need to know the truth. He decided to take a chance. Although he could no longer publish scientific papers, he speculated that he would probably be absolved of writing a story, a fictitious narrative, a satire of some sort.

In the ensuing years, he poured all his energy into completing the book, and in 1632, Galileo finally published the fruit of his efforts and years of drudgery, called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World, in which he defended his view in a sharply satirical fashion.

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems(1623) was both a scientific and literary feat as he adopted a rhetorical device of a dialogue, much like Plato’s The Republic. In it, scientific dialogues are held in a local tavern amongst three main characters, an academician modelled after the author himself, an intelligent layman, and a simpleton, about the comparison between the Copernican system that Galileo believed and the traditional Ptolemaic system that the Holy Scripture enshrined. According to the Copernican system, the Earth and other planets orbit around the Sun, whereas the Ptolemaic system held the view that everything in the universe revolves around the Earth as the stationary centre of the universe.

2.5. What happened: Heretic arrested

By putting words of the Roman Catholic in favour of the Ptolemaic system on the simpleton, the content of the book was thought to undermine the legitimacy of Pope Urban VIII, and the time could not have been worse to do so. As the religious conflict had erupted across Europe, the Roman Catholic was fighting the 30-Years War. The Pope had to defend its legitimacy at all cost, and anything that threatened to undermine it was viewed as its enemy to be subdued. Although the Pope and Galileo were previously friends, the Roman Catholic could not afford to take a chance, as the existence of the institution itself was now at stake.

As consequence, Galileo lost support from the Pope and the Jesuits. He was prosecuted by the Inquisition for heresy and was eventually put under house arrest and lost the right to teach for the rest of his life. He was severely punished as a result of telling the truth.

3. Human nature, the Truth and Socrates

Similar incidents were witnessed time and again throughout history. For example, Apology by Plato captures his teacher Socrates’ trial, which allegedly took place over two millennia ago. Following the words of God told through the oracle of Delphi, Socrates propagated the importance of searching for the truth by means of logical and critical enquiries, and yet, his views were often in conflict with the status quo or the dominant view of that time, which largely pivoted on superstitions and religious rituals. He was eventually prosecuted for corrupting the youth who were encouraged, by the philosopher, to develop a questioning mind, with the knowledge of not knowing enough, i.e., Socratic wisdom. The accusers included some of the playwrights, poets and politicians that Socrates had previously argued with and perhaps humiliated during their philosophical discourses. When they were proven wrong, the pursuit of the truth that Socrates preached and believed as the greatest improvement of the soul hurt their sense of pride and thereby evoked enmity in them. Hence, Socrates was, in the end, put to death.

4. Ending

The truth sometimes hurts, not only people’s pride when they are wrong, but also the entire existence of any institutions if they are found to be built upon false premises. In such instances, the truth becomes no longer the generalizable one, but the arbitrary notion to preserve the legitimacy of a person, a group, a religious organisation, or a political institution.

Polemical debates analogous to that are widely held today even in the academic sphere. What is considered the constant generalizable truth in natural science exists outside social actors, whereas in social science, truths are rather plural in that social relations are essentially viewed as the catalyst for the creation of people’s varying truths (Bryman 2012, pp.32-33). Further, the realities we experience everyday straddle both the concrete scientific truth and precarious social truths, which breed the complexity, and an attempt to demystify it may sometimes lead to costly consequences, and it was precisely the price that Galileo was ultimately forced to pay.

 

References

Bryman, A. (2012) Social Research Methods. 4thed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Galilei, Galileo. (1623). Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
Gribbin, J. (2008). The Fellowship: Gilbert, Bacon, Harvey, Wren, Newton and the Story of the Scientific Revolution. The Overlook Press.
Gribbin, J. (2009). Science: A History. Penguin Books Limited.
Plato. (1993). The last day of Socrates: Euthyphro; The Apology; Crito; Phaedo. Penguin Books.
The StarChild Team (NASA/GSFC). Galileo Galilei.  Available at: https://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/whos_who_level2/galileo.html
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