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October 13, 2003
Volume 81, Number 41
CENEAR 81 41 pp. 108-109
ISSN 0009-2347


GALILEO'S MISTAKE: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church, by Wade Rowland, Arcade Publishing, 2003, 298 pages, $26.95 (ISBN 1-55970-684-8)


Wade Rowland sees the heresy trial of Galileo by the Inquisition in 1633 as a turning point in history, but not for the same reason that most other people do. In his new book, "Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church," Rowland aims to shatter the modern perception of an authoritarian, anti-intellectual Catholic church's Pyrrhic victory over Galileo, the humanist voice of science and freethinking, whose ultimate vindication ushered in the Age of Reason.

Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation Between Galileo and the Church
Rather, Rowland contends that the trial marked a turning point in the Western intellectual tradition away from its Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical underpinning toward a destructive overreliance on mathematics and science as the only way to understand the universe and arrive at the truth.

In short, Rowland makes his case. He does so through an evenhanded argument steeped equally in the author's thorough grasp of history, philosophy, religion, and science, and by his preference for the simplest explanation of the documentary evidence. Rowland, who holds the MacLean-Hunter Chair of Ethics in Communications at Ryerson University, in Toronto, has a gift for communicating complicated ideas in a popular context, avoiding the cleverness, polemics, and pedagogic harping that a lesser writer on this topic might easily fall prey to.

First of all, Rowland does not argue that Galileo was mistaken about whether or not Earth is at the center of the universe. Though Galileo was forced to renounce the Copernican ideas he espoused in his book, "Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican," Rowland points out that the Jesuits and others in the Vatican were interested in the theories of Copernicus and those of other scientist-philosophers. These included Johannes Kepler, who Rowland argues far outshone Galileo as an astronomer. Many scholars at the time were intrigued by theories based on observations made using the telescope, a tool developed and popularized by Galileo. And there was much interest and thought given to reconciling new observations with scripture, the Catholic church's official account of the truth based on divine revelation.

Galileo's mistake, according to Rowland, was an arrogant insistence that science, mathematics, and the empirical precepts of the scientific method are the sole means of understanding the universe and knowing the truth. His stance, Rowland argues, was politically inept, given Pope Urban VIII's beleaguered position in the throes of the Thirty Years War. Fundamentally, according to Rowland, Galileo was also wrong.

Ultimately, Galileo was forced to renounce the Copernican view of the cosmos because he had repeatedly espoused it as the exclusive truth rather than as an astronomical theory, Rowland says. This goes a long way toward explaining why Copernicus himself was never brought before the Inquisition and why his book was called in for minor corrections rather than completely banned, as was Galileo's.

Rowland also contrasts Galileo with Kepler, who advanced astronomy into the modern era by wedding it to mathematics. Among other things, Kepler discovered that the focus of the planetary orbits is not an abstract point in space near the sun, but the sun itself. Kepler's science, however, was deeply Christian and theistic, according to Rowland. His universe was spherical and finite, representing the Christian Trinity with the center symbolic of the Father; the surface, of the Son; and the intervening space, of the Holy Ghost.

Rowland points out that Aristotelian thought has been at the core of the Church's teachings since it was put there by another revolutionary thinker, Thomas Aquinas, who worked successfully to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian doctrine. Rowland holds Aquinas up as a foil to Galileo, representing the right way as opposed to the wrong way to enlighten the status quo.

How can the recent century, which gave us fascism, weapons of mass destruction, and environmental degradation, be considered an enlightened age?

Rowland does a good job of fleshing out Galileo as a brilliant mathematician and physicist and a B-plus-level astronomer who understood politics well enough to earn the patronage of Cosimo Medici and, early on, the friendship and admiration of Urban VIII. Rowland also illuminates Galileo's impatient hubris and utter disdain for those who disagreed with him or refused to admit his "truths," character flaws that largely explain how his warm welcome in Rome deteriorated to the point of his summons by Urban before the Inquisition.

In making his argument, Rowland nicely employs a device used by Galileo in the "Dialogue"--a progressive discussion between three parties. Where Galileo's book featured Salviati, a person of sublime intellect--read Galileo; Simplico, the Earth-centric straw man whose name speaks for the character's portrayal; and Sagredo, an open-minded Venetian nobleman who serves as referee, Rowland's book has Sister Maria Celeste, Berkowitz, and himself.

Sister Celeste, in many ways the star of the book, is a scholar and university lecturer with expertise pertaining to Galileo's trial and its larger ramifications. Berkowitz, a former student of Rowland's, is the proponent of science whose cynical view of the world is roughly aligned with contemporary mainstream thinking. Rowland, often a referee during the threesome's many meetings at cafés, restaurants, and cathedrals in major Italian cities, convenes the group on a trip to Italy to research his book. Chapters detailing their lively discussions are alternated with Rowland's more explicative, yet equally engaging, chapters.

The dialogue in "Galileo's Mistake" pits scientism, a mode of thought that assigns science absolute authority over the truth, against learned ignorance, a more complex concept extending from St. Augustine's pia confessio ignorantiae, or humble confession of ignorance. The essence of learned ignorance, ironically, is best summed up by the rationalist Jean Jacques Rousseau, who said that what we do not know harms us less than what we think we know, but don't.

While Berkowitz is quick to point out that science, motivated by what it does not know, is entirely about "filling in the blanks with knowledge," Sister Celeste reminds him that science picks and chooses which gaps to fill. That which cannot be measured does not exist to the scientistic mind, she says. This leaves out a great many things such as religion, moral philosophy, and aesthetics. To the learned ignorant, however, the immeasurable and ultimately unanswerable are the impetus for learning and the source of potential revelation. Ignorance is a kind of guiding light.


TRYING TIMES "Galileo before the Inquisition Tribunal" (1857), by Cristiano Banti. COURTESY OF ARCADE PUBLISHING

The book succeeds partly because Berkowitz, by no means a simple buffoon, is never completely won over, despite being essentially double-teamed by Rowland and the nun. Sister Celeste, on the other hand, is no religious zealot and has many pointed insights into the world of science. She eloquently gets Berkowitz to concede that much of the scientific method is based on a faith in knowledge handed down from science's "priests and doctors" and accepted as truth without further experiment. She also lays out the church's historic regard for what is learned in the secular realm of science.

In doing this, she brings up Pope John Paul II's speech in the Polish hometown of Copernicus to a group of scientists at the time of the Church's 1992 admission that it erred in condemning Galileo--an event blithely mocked in the press. The Pope, demonstrably the opposite of an anti-intellectual, painted in his speech the image of a supportive marriage between reason and faith at the core of human existence. Rowland contends that this ceased to be a marriage of equals with the dawn of the Age of Reason in the 17th century. Galileo's trial serves as a kind of fulcrum.

Rowland's theme of the nature of truth will always be of key interest to scientists. But "Galileo's Mistake" addresses a broader audience. The real hook comes in chapter one, in which Rowland voices his dissatisfaction with a quality of life that clearly contradicts the popular view that progress is good and inevitable if we just leave it to science--the broken promise, if you will, of better living through science. Are we, he asks, happier than people were 500 or 600 years ago, or are we just more comfortable? How can the recent century, which gave us fascism, weapons of mass destruction, and environmental degradation, be considered an enlightened age?

Rowland sees a contemporary social sickness that would be hard to match with that of any previous time in history. He notes, for example, that in our society many of our worst paid and least prestigious jobs are those that require the most benevolence and that contribute most to the well-being of society. Increasing workloads have, with the help of cell phones, laptop computers, and the Internet, led to widespread abandonment of family life and civic responsibilities. Economic competitiveness has generated a pervasive nastiness that fills in the growing gap between individuals. Meanwhile, the Church is basically dead on the ropes.

Ultimately, Rowland finds that the history of the scientific revolution's poster boy, written by the victors (in this case the rationalists and anti-Catholics), obscures the truth. Moving into the 21st century, however, Rowland suggests the Pyrrhic victory may ultimately be science's.

Senior Editor Rick Mullin is a business reporter based at C&EN's Northeast News Bureau.


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