The NOVA documentary, Galileo's Battle for the Heavens, presents the drama of a heroic Galileo battling for truth. This Galileo was a man whose guide was fact and experiment and not inherited wisdom. But the NOVA documentary might be more drama than history. In Against Method, Paul Feyerabend also presents Galileo as a heroic figure. But for Feyerabend, Galileo's guide was often intuition not fact. Feyerabend believed that great science does not work the way it is painted in textbooks, and one support for this was that Galileo's commitment to Copernicism did not agree with facts known at the time.
Looking for older page. It's here
Much has been written about Galileo's problems with the church over his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Typically they present Galileo's arguments for the Copernican Model against an archaic Ptolemaic Model. Galileo provided some compelling criticisms of the Ptolemaic Model. Given these criticisms, those who disagreed with Galileo (including church scientists) are made to look very foolish. The problem with Galileo's Battle for the Heavens, like so many treatments of the Galileo Affair, is that they have fallen for a straw man argument. In a straw man argument, you create or choose an opposing argument that is easy to defeat, then proceed to destroy it. Your own argument is the victor by default. When Galileo wrote his Dialogue, the Ptolemaic model was not a "Chief World System" [_1_] . In fact, Galileo was proposing the Copernican Model against 4 other systems, including the one we accept today, the Keplerian Model.
There were at least 5 major planetary models in play when Galileo published the Dialogue. They were the Tychonic, Ursine, Capellan, Copernican and Keplerian. Three were geo-heliocentric ( Tychonic, Capellan, Ursine) where some bodies circled the sun and some the earth. Two were heliocentric (Copernican and Keplerian). Early on, Galileo's Battle for the Heavens describes Galileo's discovery that Venus went through phases. This could only be explained if Venus was orbiting the Sun and not earth. If the choice was between a Copernican model ( sun-centred ) and Galileo's straw man ( the earth-centred Ptolemaic) it was clear proof for the Copernican Model. But it wasn't a two-way choice. All 5 of the models mentioned above are compatible with the Galileo's discovery of the phases of Venus. This is lost on viewers because opposing models other than the Ptolemaic are never mentioned.
Straw man arguments aren't scientific. Other clues that tell us that Galileo narratives aren't about science is the poor job done on listing the pros and cons of the various systems. In Against Method, Paul Feyerabend spends several chapters discussing Galileo and both the arguments and counter-arguments for Copernicism from a philosophical and scientific point of view. The noted philosopher's conclusions are at odds with the digested version of the controversy presented in the typical biography:
...while the pre-Copernican astronomy was in trouble (was confronted by a series of refuting instances and implausibilities), the Copernican theory was in even greater trouble (was confronted by even more drastic refuting instances and implausibilities).
There are necessary consequences of a moving earth. One of these would be the observation of stellar parallax (see Copernicus and Stellar Parallax). If the earth was moving relative to the sun it demands that viewers on earth be able to see some change in the relative positions of nearer and distant stars over the course of a year. No-one in Galileo's time was able to detect any change in the positions of the different stars. Stellar parallax was eventually detected, but not until 1838.
The Copernican Model had an even bigger problem than stellar parallax. Planetary models are mathematical models. This means they can be used to predict the position of any planet at any time during a year. Deciding on a model should have been as easy as comparing predicted positions with actual positions for each of the different models. But it seemed that all the models (excepting the Keplerian) were observationally equivalent. Modern computer-aided analyses of the Copernican Model and the Ptolemaic model confirm that there is little statistical difference between the two [_2_] . Galileo narratives ignore the fact that the Copernican Model used perfect circles, and the problem required the use of Kepler's ellipses. Kepler's model would prove better than the others but because it was so new, this was not obvious during Galileo's lifetime.
Although the observational data didn't prove that Kepler's Model was superior to the other models, it certainly showed that Kepler's Model should be taken seriously. Kepler's model predicted that Mercury would pass between the Earth and Sun on November 7,1631. This is known as a Transit of Mercury (see Gassendi's Transit). A Catholic priest, Pierre Gassendi, arranged for astronomers around Europe to attempt to verify the Transit. The Transit occurred within minutes of when the Keplerian Model said it would. Gassendi calculated the Kepler's model had an error of only 14 minutes (of an arc). He also calculated that the Alphonsine (Ptolemaic) model had an error of 4 degrees 25 minutes, and the Copernican Model was worse still with an error of 5 degrees (see Nicolaus Copernicus Thorunensis). Galileo ignored this important experiment. He had announced his decision to ignore Kepler's work well before the experiment. (see Galileo's Contemporaries).
Narratives such as Galileo's Battle for the Heavens do Galileo a tremendous disservice. Galileo is justifiably considered one of the greatest scientists of the modern age. This could be argued using only one of his works, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. Although this is probably his most important work, he made many other important advances in a variety of areas. It seems that Galileo's rich resume of important accomplishments is not good enough for Galileo narratives. His accomplishments are often augmented with myth, hyperbole and embellishment. As a result, it is difficult to know which is the real Galileo ends and where the mythical Galileo begins.
There are several examples of myth-making from Galileo's Battle for the Heavens. This from an award-winning documentary that is used widely in science education in the United States. The program's accompanying website stated "...Despite myriad embellishments, however, most optical telescopes in use in the 21st century derive from the two types developed in the 17th century by Galileo and Newton, on whose shoulders all astronomers, both amateur and professional, stand today.". Astronomical telescopes have not been derived from Galileo's telescope design for about 350 years. Astronomers had completed the switch to using Kepler's competing design approximately 10 years after Galileo died (see Fathers of the Telescope). The educational materials are even wrong about Newton's designs. Newton's designs are still used by amateurs, but for about a century, almost all major research reflecting telescopes have been based on a design proposed by a 17th century Catholic priest, Laurent Cassegrain ( see Reflecting on History). In an ironic twist, Isaac Newton was the most important early critic of the design.
The program leaves the impression that Galileo owed little to his predecessors or contemporaries. Galileo was not the first to apply mathematics to nature as the program's website suggests. This tradition had been established centuries before in Oxford (see The Oxford Calculators) and Paris (the Doctores Parienses) but had spread through Europe. We know that Galileo had been exposed to their work while at the University of Pisa from his own notes as a student [_3_] . Galileo's time-squared law for free fall (distance is related to the square of time) is the same as Bishop Oresme's time-squared law for objects undergoing constant acceleration (distance is related to the square of time). Galileo's geometric proof for his theory is very similar to Oresme's geometric proof for his. Bishop Oresme was a Parisian academic. Galileo was not a lone voice for experimentation or a lone voice against Aristotle. Sadly, the program's educational materials use Galileo's Tower of Pisa experiment as an example of his belief in experimentation. There is no evidence that this experiment was ever performed (see Galileo's Contemporaries). There are several well-documented free-fall experiments from towers done by Galileo's predecessors and contemporaries ( Varchi, Moletti, Stevin, Philiponus, Renieri). Neither was Galileo the only scientist from his time that was committed to experimental determination of physical phenomenon. The program describes how Galileo used experiment to derive the acceleration due to free fall. This was an incredibly difficult task given the tools Galileo had at his disposal. It is therefore not surprising that Galileo's estimate of the acceleration due to gravity was about 1/2 of the actual value [_4_] . It was Galileo's contemporaries amongst the Jesuits who made the first accurate estimate of the acceleration due to gravity (see Galileo's Contemporaries).
Serious treatments of the Galileo Affair agree that the Inquisition was very accommodating to Galileo's needs while he was in Rome. This fact doesn't work well in a drama about a rebel clashing with authority. According to the documentary, "Galileo was remanded to a small room in the Palace of the Inquisition.". The floor plan below was done by a nineteenth century historian who had visited Galileo's five-room suite in the Palace [_5_] . Galileo had 3 large rooms to himself, one room was for Galileo's personal valet, and there was a small ante-room to receive visitors. One side of the apartment looked out on the Vatican Gardens, and from one corner Galileo had a view of St. Peter's. Based on the floor plan, the "small room" was a suite of approximately 2500 square feet (230 square metres). A similar sized hotel suite in Rome today could be booked for about $9,000.00 a night (see Rome's Top Ten Suites) but that would be without a personal valet, or the finest of Tuscan cuisine provided daily by the Major Domo of the Tuscan Embassy.
Galileo's dispute with the church over Copernicism has become a symbol for the conflict between church and science. This is curious. The Copernican model was never fully accepted by the scientific community (they eventually chose Kepler's model) and cosmology is hardly mainstream science. If finding a symbol is that easy, why wouldn't Gregor Mendel be the choice (see Gregor Mendel and Evolution). His work is core to any modern understanding of biology, agriculture or medicine. And his work was used to rescue Darwinism from obscurity. Even if we agree that seventeenth century cosmology can stand in for all of science we have problems. Wouldn't it make more sense to use the cosmologist from Galileo's time who had the most influence on the future of astronomy. That would be Johannes Kepler. A measure of Kepler's importance is Newton's high regard for his work. The image below is a word cloud (see wordle.net) of references to scientists in Newton's great work,Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
Kepler was not a Catholic. Born a Lutheran, he had been excommunicated from the Lutheran church for some of his beliefs. He remained a devout Christian, but outside of any formal tradition. Nothing seemed to come easy for Kepler. Early in his career, Kepler had trouble gaining access to a telescope. Galileo ignored his request to borrow one. It would be left to a local Catholic bishop to lend him one. Over time Kepler developed a very special and long-lasting relationship with the Austrian Jesuits (especially Paul Guldin). Kepler would use the Jesuit network of institutions as his private postal service. The Jesuits chased down and returned a manuscript that was stolen from him. Niccolo Zucchi, a master Jesuit telescope builder, built a telescope for Kepler, at Guldin's request. Kepler acknowledged the help with a gushing thank you to the Jesuits in his last book, the Somnium.
Galileo, Kepler and the Jesuits were involved in a dispute over the design of telescopes. Galileo's preferred design used a convex objective and a plano-concave eyepiece. A few years after Galileo introduced his telescopes, Kepler proposed a design with a convex objective and a convex eyepiece. This design was largely ignored; except for a group of Jesuits, led by Christopher Scheiner. Scheiner started building and using telescopes using Kepler's design. He detailed this in his work, Rosa Ursina, in 1630. Astronomers remained skeptical. Within twenty years, however, astronomers had made a complete about face, discarding the Galilean design in favour of Kepler's design. The advantages of the Keplerian design had become obvious. Scheiner was only one of many church scientists who made important contributions to the early development of telescopes. This included building the first crude reflecting telescope, inventing a telescope mount that is still used widely today and proposing the reflecting telescope design that would dominate in the twentieth century. Fathers of the Telescope details some of the contributions of church scientists to the early development of the telescope.
The Galileo Affair is all about Galileo's problems with the church over his support for the Copernican Model. Copernicus himself had no problems with the church over his model. Copernicus was either in the care or employ of the church from the time he was orphaned at age 10 to his death at age 70. The church funded his university education, and provided him with three sinecures. Sinecures are effectively "money for nothing"; a regular stipend given to an individual with no associated responsibilities. In his last days, he was being cared for by a church canon, at the request of a Catholic bishop. Although Copernicus published his major works on the Copernican Model very late in life his ideas were floating around academic circles in Europe well before that. About 10 years before his death, they reached the Vatican. Shortly afterward the Vatican sent him a letter asking him to share his work with other scholars (see Schonberg's Letter). A key figure in the final publication of his work was his friend, Tiedemann Giese, a local bishop. Copernicus's workload as a canon was reduced to help him complete his manuscript. When the manuscript was finally published, it contained a copy of Schonberg's Letter, the imprimatur of the pope, and an expression of thanks to the pope. Copernicus was buried in a privileged location in the Fromborg Cathedral, near the altar he was responsible for as a canon [_6_] .
Galileo's own problems with the church over the Copernican Model are well-known. The Vatican's reaction to the Dialogue was extreme. He was eventually placed under house arrest in a large summer villa, Il Gioello, that Galileo had been renting from one of the richest banking families in Florence. "House arrest" didn't mean quite the same thing to the Inquisition as it does today. It was more often a restriction of movement. If the sentence really involved a house arrest, there would have been no need to specify that he shouldn't cross the Arno, which was about 2 kilometers from his villa. At the time Galileo was 69. Until that time, Galileo had enjoyed the favour of the church. This included monetary support for his research. When Pope Urban VIII was elected pope, he arranged for two prebends for Galileo. Prebends are similar to sinecures, a recurring grant with little associated responsibilities [_7_] . Galileo did have disputes with several Jesuits but for the most part these were scientific disputes, as happen even today. Throughout his life he remained close to many Roman Catholic clergy. Two priests, Pierre Gassendi and Marin Mersenne, could be considered Galileo's ambassadors outside of Italy. One of his 'prisons' during his trial was the palace of one of his best friends, Archbishop Piccolomini of Siena. Although the Inquisition considered his stay there as a "formal prison", few others would. He was wined and dined by his friend. In fact, although Galileo's daughter was happy that he was being housed by a friend, she was concerned that her father may overindulge and thereby endanger his health [_8_] .
The Galileo Affair raises many questions that could be used to bring students a bit closer to the nub of science. What is the difference between a theory and a model? What constitutes 'proof' for a theory? How do you validate a model? Why are actual physical experiments considered the 'gold standard' when trying to prove a theory? Why is "being right" not good enough in science? These are not the questions that are asked by educators in their worksheets for "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens". They can hardly be blamed. Galileo's Battle for the Heavens, like many treatments of the Galileo Affair, do not consider the questions important. Scientists do. It seems that with the Galileo Affair, drama takes center stage and science is demoted to a sideshow.