Galileo, the Church and the centre of the universe
Galileo (pictured), a faithful Catholic whom many consider to be the creator of modern science, struggled to have his discoveries accepted by the Church.
His struggle is recounted in Galileo’s Battle For The Heavens, a two-hour documentary which screens on SBS television on Sunday, May 18, with English actor Simon Callow as Galileo.
The program is based on Dava Sobel’s bestseller, Galileo’s Daughter, which relates how the scientist’s closest confidante was his illegitimate daughter, Sr Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun who conducted an intimate correspondence with her father for 20 years.
From 1609, Galileo’s use of the newly invented telescope to observe the night sky led him to support the theory proposed 60 years earlier by Copernicus - that the earth is not immobile and at the centre of the universe, but turns on its own axis and revolves around the sun.
The Holy Office of the Inquisition declared such thinking to be heresy. And in 1616 it told Galileo to recant or he would be silenced.
Galileo maintained that Holy Scripture did not lie but if it said something different to science then it had been misinterpreted and asked: “If the sacred scribes meant to teach men astronomy why did they leave it out?”
He submitted to the inquisition, however, and declared that his support of Copernicus had been a “poetical conceit, a dream, a fancy of my own”.
Galileo did explore his radical ideas in 1632 in Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems, after Pope Urban VIII (1623-44) told him a hypothetical discussion of his work was permissible.
But the Pope was insulted by the finished book in which a simpleton expressed similar views to his own.
Galileo appeared before the Inquisition and, when found guilty of heresy, renounced his views.
His book was banned and he was condemned to house arrest, unable to teach or travel or to see his daughter without permission.
Maria Celeste, who had continued her correspondence with her father during his battles, offering support and advice, died at the age of 33 from dysentery.
Her father lamented her death, describing her as “a woman of exquisite mind and singular goodness, who was most tender in her feelings towards me”.
After her death, Galileo turned his attention to studies on motion and, at 74, produced a book on the physics of motion, which revolutionised opinion on the subject and provided the foundations for Isaac Newton’s discoveries.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II used Galileo’s own words to express regret over the confrontation which had taken place.
He said that the scriptures do not err, but that theologians can err in interpretation.
Battle for the Heavens, SBS TV, 8.30pm, Sunday, May 18.