447 years ago today in Pisa, Italy, Galileo Galilei was born. Some call him the father of modern science, many regard him highly for his discoveries, and of course, others know him because of his controversial relationship with the Catholic Church. You can see all of his achievements on his Wikipedia page, but his most well-known discoveries are those in astronomy which led to his support of Copernicanism and most importantly, the heliocentric view of the heavens which contrasted with a “literal” interpretation of a particular Bible verse that led the Church to believe that the Earth was the center of the universe. The details of this support of Copernicanism are fascinating, yet questionable, and this no doubt played a role in the treatment and verdict he received at the hands of the Inquisition.
Galileo himself was a very religious man who thought of entering the priesthood but at the behest of his father began a degree in medicine. This was not for him and Galileo trained both in the arts and in mathematics (a true Renaissance man!) and for a time taught both. However, mathematics and science would become his primary focus.
Because of his support of Copernicanism, Galileo is often seen as a martyr for science and thus a key figure in the warfare model for the interaction of science and religion. The facts are often less dramatic than reality, but Galileo’s treatment by the Catholic Church was certainly undeserved and has left a stain on its relationship with science. Galileo’s books were banned, he was barred from public speaking in favor of Copernicanism, he was forced to show he was a “good and favorable” Catholic (doctrine, not deeds) and he was subject to trial by the Inquisition which ultimately led to his living the last decade of his life under house arrest. Myth has it that he was also jailed and tortured, but this is not generally accepted anymore (for instance, see the great book, Galileo Goes to Jail, which I reviewed previously). Torture or not, Galileo was mistreated, disrespected, and serves a wonderful example of religious doctrine inhibiting scientific progress. The Catholic Church has attempted to make up for its errors in the matter by publicly praising his work (20th century and on), expressing regret for the way it handled the situation, and proposing to erect a stature in his honor inside Vatican walls.
Happy birthday, Galileo. Thank you for paving the way for science in general, and science and religion, specifically. The world hasn’t been the same ever since.