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Galileo

The most infamous clash between science and religion is undoubtedly the Galileo affair. According to popular mythology the great Italian physicist Galileo Galilei almost lost his life at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church for championing the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the sun circling the earth. Yet historians have now shown that the whole story has been greatly exaggerated, and that the reality was a lot more complex.

In fact Galileo never spent a single day in jail. During his trial he was housed in luxury in a cardinal's palace, and throughout his life some of his greatest supporters were cardinals and other churchmen. At the time of his trial, in 1633, no one had definite proof that the earth orbits the sun. The truth is that astronomy then was not accurate enough to decide between an earth-centered and sun-centered system. Nonetheless, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church (along with many other scholars at the time) was slowly moving towards accepting this new vision of the heavens, and it is likely that the whole conflict could have been avoided if Galileo himself had been a bit less arrogant. The church was far from admirable in its behavior, in that Galileo was committed to house arrest for the last eight years of life, for espousing his views. Yet the church did not try to stop him from pursuing his science, and it was in fact during this time that he wrote his great book, "Dialogs Concerning Two New Sciences", which established his role as a founder of modern physics.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Margaret Wertheim

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