15 February 2007

Galileo Galilei RIP

Ye men of Galilei, why stand ye gazing up into the heavens? So an opponent of Galileo is said to have preached--the reference is to Acts 1:11--in opposition to his astronomical discoveries. Galileo's tiny telescope was not even as good as the binoculars my father used when I was six or so to show me the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter, but with it he turned the world upside down, as Martin Luther put it. Mountains on the moon, spots on the sun, the phases of Venus--these things may seem commonplace now, but they were revolutionary at the beginning of the seventeenth century. They weren't in the Bible, or Aristotle, or any other authority from antiquity, and they suggested ideas that challenged the common sense notion of the world that then prevailed.

That the solid earth we stand on might be hurling at some inconceivable speed through space is counter-intuitive, to say the least. But if we accept it--and the idea was by no means new when Galileo started peering through his primitive telescope--might not the other bodies we see be worlds as well? The moon, Venus, Jupiter? Could they be inhabited? And why hadn't the authorities, either religious or secular, said anything about all this? And if God wasn't up there sitting above the sphere of the fixed stars, keeping everything in motion, turning the cosmic mechanism with a gigantic crank--well, then, where was he?

In the end Galileo, and Kepler, and Newton, and those that followed them would crack the tiny medieval cosmos open like an egg, revealing the splendor of the universe we know today. More than that, as time and distance commingle, we get to look back in time, and see the universe as it was. It's been one hell of a trip from the tube Galileo looked through to the massive arrays of mirrors here on earth and the Hubble out in space, but he was there at the beginning, and he helped to start it all.

As 15 February 2007 is Galileo's 443rd birthday, a look at how he fares in the news might be interesting. Eminent climatologist and Nobel laureate Frank Beckmann compares himself to Galileo in connection with the "controversy" over global warming. (I assume from his magisterial tone on the subject that he must be an eminent climatologist and Nobel laureate in addition to holding a day job at WJR.) "No, I consider myself and fellow doubters to be more like Columbus (and Galileo), going against the grain of conventional thought. Columbus was ridiculed by his contemporaries who, by ‘consensus,’ had determined that the world was flat, much as Galileo did with his earth/sun argument. It’s the alarmists who represent the Catholic Church of your example."

This is not inspiring. Columbus, by the by, was "ridiculed by his contemporaries" for believing that the world was about twelve thousand miles in circumference, instead of the twenty-five thousand or so they had determined it was. The issue was the size, not the shape, of the earth. And Columbus's experimental proof of the concept--his reaching the Indies by crossing the Atlantic--in fact failed, when it was determined that Columbus had not in fact reached the Indies at all. Does everybody sleep through history, or what?

Elsewhere, we find Jack Cashill describing one Dr. Richard Sternberg as "the Galileo of the Smithsonian scandal". "What did happen to Dr. Sternberg is shocking even by Washington standards. The damage done to his career is real, irreversible and symptomatic of the lengths the science establishment will go to suppress challenges to the most vulnerable of its paradigms, namely Darwinism and its derivatives."

Again, not exactly inspiring. "The most vulnerable of its paradigms"? I don't have the facts on this, but as far as I can gather from the report, it looks as though Dr. Sternberg as editor of a scientific publication bypassed the ordinary review process to publish a substandard paper by a buddy of his. As I don't see that much of anything was actually done about this shocking breach of ethics on his part, I likewise don't see how this makes him a "Galileo". Perhaps somebody can enlighten me.

I don't know how Galileo became the patron saint of the anti-science crowd, but it seems somehow not wholly inappropriate. From the hindsight of history we watch Galileo take the first steps towards something resembling science--but they are baby steps. He reached wrong conclusions about comets, and tides, and the elliptical orbits of planets, and defended them doggedly in the face of what appears today--in hindsight anyway--considerable evidence. His understanding of science was primitive--much like the understanding of those who cite him today. Of course he had the excuse of having grown up in a dense jungle of medieval superstition, christian theocracy, and fossilized natural history. What, I wonder, is Beckmann's, or Cahill's excuse?

(17 February 2007: The Lippard Blog provides a link to a piece expounding the Sternberg Affair.)

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