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Galileo's Mistake: The Archeology of a Myth.

Wade Rowland, Galileo's Mistake: The Archeology of a Myth, Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, 2001, pp. 350, hard cover, $34.95.

This book concerns Galileo's theory about the revolution of the earth around the sun, the philosophy he espoused in regard to the nature and acquisition of truth, and the reason for his condemnation by the Inquisition.

Wade Roland has written a book in which the life and accomplishments of Galileo are described in effortless prose and with a light touch, which is a joy to read. He has the ear of a journalist and a novelist's eye. The book is structured around several dialogues the author has with two companions from time to time, usually during some sybaritic repast. One companion, Berkowitz, an expupil of his, is an atheist. The other is a Dominican nun, Sister Maria Celeste, an expert on the Renaissance, who defends the Catholic Church in regard to the controversy about Galileo. Wade Roland assumes the role of an agnostic, who is prepared to question the assumption, made by Galileo and also by many modern scientists, that science is the only source of certain kinds of truth. Numerous serious topics are discussed in an elegant manner via sometimes serious argument and sometimes light banter or frank humour at the hands of Roland and his friends.

Galileo was primarily a brilliant and innovative physicist, and the first major practitioner of the scientific method. He became famous, however, not for his physics, but for his statements that "the Sun is the centre of the world, and hence immovable" and that "the earth is not the centre of the world, nor immovable, but moves." He was never able to prove these statements. Subsequently it has been proven that the earth does move around the sun, but also that the sun is not immobile, but does move as part of a galaxy of stars. It is also known that the position of the centre of the world (the universe) has yet to be determined. From a hypothetical point of view any point in space can be assumed to be the centre of the universe.

The idea that the sun rotated around the earth originated at the time of the ancient Greeks. It was originally suggested by Hipparchus of Nicea (190-120 B.C.) and reiterated by Ptolemy of Alexandria (87-150 A.D.). The idea that the earth revolves around the sun was introduced by Copernicus, thirty years before Galileo was born. In 1610, Galileo publicly proclaimed that Copernicus was right, and this proclamation contradicted the opinion of most people at that time.

But Galileo said more. He insisted that science was the only source of knowledge. He also held that scientists could discover knowledge that equals divine knowledge in objective certainty (if not in breadth) because it was able to establish that certain aspects of the natural world were necessarily so. This was a mechanist, materialist philosophy, which did not allow for the omnipotence and transcendence of God. It was this philosophy that the Church objected to, and not his hypothesis that the earth revolved around the sun.

It is of interest to note that certain modern 'process' or 'evolutionary' theologians, some of them Catholic, hold a similar view in that they claim that God had no choice but to create a world which was governed by the "iron law" of a Natural Selection, postulated by one of His creatures, Charles Darwin.

Galileo was right about one thing. The theologians of. his time, who objected to heliocentrism, made the error of thinking that our understanding of the physical world's structure was imposed by the literal sense of Scripture. As Pope John Paul II has said, Galileo, a sincere believer, showed himself more perceptive in this regard. "If Scripture cannot err," Galileo wrote, "certain of its interpreters and commentators can and do so in many ways."

The Inquisition condemned Galileo, not for his Copernican ideas, but for presenting them as in fact true, and this appeared to contradict Scripture. The Inquisition also did not consider their judgment to be absolutely final and irreversible. His hypothesis was never declared heretical whether by the ordinary or the extraordinary Magisterium.

It was the condemnation of Galileo that led to the myth that the Church hated science and wanted to keep the minds of men in darkness. Wade Rowland gives ample witness that this is untrue. The facts are quite the reverse. Stanley Jaki and others have argued that it was the metaphysical framework of medieval Catholicism which made modern science possible at all. As Jaki put it, "Science was 'stillborn' in every major culture, Greek, Hindu, Chinese--except in the Christian West. It was the insistence on the rationality of God and His creation by St. Thomas Aquinas, and. other Catholic thinkers, that paved the way for Galileo and Newton" (George Sim Johnston, "The Galileo Affair, Princeton N.J. Sceptre Press).

Pope John Paul II tells us that from the Galileo affair we can learn a lesson which remains valid in relation to similar situations which occur today, and which may occur in the future. He reminds us that the emergence of complexity in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology probably marks a moment in the history of the natural sciences as important as the stage which bears the name of Galileo. One has only to recall the recent developments in stem cell research in studies of the human genome, and in eugenic research, to realize something which Galileo did not; viz., the importance of making a distinction between the scientific approach to natural phenomena and a reflection on nature, which that approach generally calls for. These problems concern both nature and the message of the faith. Therefore both scientists and theologians should have an informed awareness of the field and of the limits of their own competencies (Pope John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. L'Osservatore Roman o, N.44 (1264), no.4, Nov. 1992). This is the most important lesson to be learned from the Galileo affair.

What Wade Rowland has called "Galileo's Mistake" should become our opportunity.

Galileo's Mistake was a book which was hard to put down. One had the feeling of being an unobserved guest, with fascinating companions, in an utterly delightful world. One feature in particular added to the aesthetic pleasure of the reading experience: The book is liberally endowed with beautiful photographs of the buildings and places encountered by the author on his travels through Pisa, Padua, Florence, Venice, and Rome. The book is highly recommended.
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Author:Shea, John B.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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