Long-Lost Letter Shows How Galileo Tried to Fool the Inquisition & Escape Censure for Putting Scientific Truth Ahead of Church Dogma (1613)

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emi­ly Dick­in­son, “Suc­cess in Cir­cuit lies.” No doubt she had more lit­er­ary, or meta­phys­i­cal, mat­ters in mind than sci­en­tif­ic. But for sci­en­tists work­ing in times hos­tile to change, telling the truth, as they know it, can be dan­ger­ous. This applies to EPA sci­en­tists work­ing today as it did 400 years ago to Euro­pean astronomers, who faced censure—with pos­si­bly fatal consequences—for con­tra­dict­ing the offi­cial ver­sion of real­i­ty dic­tat­ed by the Catholic Church and enforced by the Inqui­si­tion.

The sto­ry of Galileo Galilei’s infa­mous con­fronta­tion with what the Rice Uni­ver­si­ty Galileo Project calls that “per­ma­nent insti­tu­tion” of the Church, “charged with the erad­i­ca­tion of here­sies,” has swelled into leg­end, with the astronomer play­ing the part of a mar­tyr for rea­son and evi­dence. Oth­er ver­sions, like Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileopor­tray him, writes The New York­er’s Adam Gop­nik, not as “a mar­tyr-hero but a turn­coat, albeit one of genius.” Rather than stand­ing on prin­ci­ple, he hedged and com­pro­mised.

A “new­er (and, unsur­pris­ing­ly, Church-endorsed) view,” writes Gop­nik, “is that Galileo made need­less trou­ble for him­self by being impolitic,” and that all the poor Church want­ed, “as today’s intel­li­gent design­ers now say,” was to “’teach the con­tro­ver­sy’” between Coper­ni­can and Aris­totelian the­o­ries. What­ev­er their inter­pre­ta­tion, his­to­ri­ans of the events lead­ing up to Galileo’s con­vic­tion for heresy after the pub­li­ca­tion of his Dia­logue Con­cern­ing the Two Chief World Sys­tems now have a new piece of evi­dence to add to their assess­ment.

A let­ter, “long thought lost,” Nature reports, has reap­peared, pro­vid­ing “the strongest evi­dence yet that, at the start of his bat­tle with the reli­gious author­i­ties, Galileo active­ly engaged in dam­age con­trol and tried to spread a toned-down ver­sion of his claims.” In the sev­en-page doc­u­ment, writ­ten to his friend Benedet­to Castel­li in 1613, Galileo “set out for the first time his argu­ments that sci­en­tif­ic research should be free from the­o­log­i­cal doc­trine.” Fur­ther­more, and most damn­ing­ly for him:

He argued that the scant ref­er­ences in the Bible to astro­nom­i­cal events should not be tak­en lit­er­al­ly, because scribes had sim­pli­fied these descrip­tions so that they could be under­stood by com­mon peo­ple. Reli­gious author­i­ties who argued oth­er­wise, he wrote, didn’t have the com­pe­tence to judge. Most cru­cial­ly, he rea­soned that the helio­cen­tric mod­el of Earth orbit­ing the Sun, pro­posed by Pol­ish astronomer Nico­laus Coper­ni­cus 70 years ear­li­er, is not actu­al­ly incom­pat­i­ble with the Bible.

Copies of the con­tro­ver­sial let­ter cir­cu­lat­ed, and inevitably made their way into the hands of Inqui­si­tion author­i­ties in 1615, for­ward­ed by a Domini­can fri­ar named Nic­colò Lori­ni. Alarmed, Galileo “wrote to his friend Piero Dini, a cler­ic in Rome, sug­gest­ing that the let­ter Lori­ni had sent to the Inqui­si­tion might have been doc­tored.” He enclosed anoth­er, less inflam­ma­to­ry, ver­sion, which he claimed was the orig­i­nal. He wrote of the “wicked­ness and igno­rance” of those he claimed had tried to frame him. The Inquisi­tors, he wrote “may be in part deceived by this fraud which is going around under the cloak of zeal and char­i­ty.”

His­to­ri­ans have long known of the two let­ters, but were uncer­tain as to whose ver­sion of events to believe. The orig­i­nal of the Lori­ni copy was thought to have been lost, until its recent dis­cov­ery by post­doc­tor­al sci­ence his­to­ri­an Sal­va­tore Ric­cia­r­do, who found it, of all places, in the Roy­al Soci­ety library, where it had sat unno­ticed for 250 years. The orig­i­nal let­ter, which Castel­li had returned to Galileo, shows edits in his own hand. “Beneath its scratch­ings-out and amend­ments, the signed copy dis­cov­ered by Ric­cia­r­do shows Galileo’s orig­i­nal wording—and it is the same as in the Lori­ni copy” that land­ed him in trou­ble.

The evi­dence proves that Galileo strong­ly advo­cat­ed for the Coper­ni­can sys­tem, and against Church inter­fer­ence in free inquiry, in 1613. In one pas­sage of the let­ter, orig­i­nal­ly describ­ing the Bible as “false if one goes by the lit­er­al mean­ing of the words,” Galileo cross­es out “false” and inserts “look dif­fer­ent from the truth.” In anoth­er ref­er­ence to scrip­ture as “con­ceal­ing” the truth, he opts for the more the­o­log­i­cal-sound­ing “veil­ing.” The let­ter shows Galileo soft­en­ing his views to escape con­dem­na­tion, but it does not show him recant­i­ng in any way.

In 1616, the year after the Church received a copy of the first let­ter from Lori­ni and Galileo’s doc­tored ver­sion, he was warned to stop argu­ing for the Coper­ni­can mod­el, though he lat­er received assur­ances from Pope Urban VIII that he could con­tin­ue to write about helio­cen­trism if he pre­sent­ed the idea as a math­e­mat­i­cal propo­si­tion rather than a state­ment of fact. Of course, as we know, his con­tin­ued sup­port for the sci­ence earned him per­ma­nent house arrest in 1633, and cen­turies of endur­ing admi­ra­tion from the oppo­nents of dog­mat­ic sup­pres­sion of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge.

via Nature

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How a Book Thief Forged a Rare Edi­tion of Galileo’s Sci­en­tif­ic Work, and Almost Pulled it Off

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Physics Intro­duces the Dis­cov­er­ies of Galileo, New­ton, Maxwell & Ein­stein

See Galileo’s Famous Grav­i­ty Exper­i­ment Per­formed in the World’s Largest Vac­u­um Cham­ber, and on the Moon

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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