Friday, January 11, 2008

Bohemian Rhapsody

Galileo Galilei (b. 1564) is my favorite scientist. A genius who worked hard all his life seeking truth. He is to scientists as Thomas More is to lawyers: the King’s good servant, but God’s first. Unfortunately his life was made supremely miserable by the most well-meaning persons including the Jesuit saint Robert Bellarmine.

Galileo was sent to a monastery for his early education. He was attracted to the monastic way of life and became a novice. His father wanted him to become a medical doctor however and pulled him out and enrolled him at the University of Pisa.

He never finished his medical studies because he spent most of his time studying mathematics. He taught mathematics for 21 years first in Pisa and then in Padua. His famous quote on mathematics appeared in one of his books: “Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth.”

He remained devout and devoted to his work, his 2 daughters became nuns.

In 1609 he invented the telescope and within a two month period of observing the evening skies, he arguably made more scientific discoveries than anyone before or since. He firmly belonged to the Copernican camp but was purposely quiet on the matter not wanting to stir controversy.

In 1616 Cardinal Bellarmine was ordered to meet with the other cardinals of the Inquisition to decide upon Copernican theory. Theological experts were summoned and the theories of Copernicus were formally condemned. Bellarmine personally informed Galileo of this decision and was explicitly forbidden to support the studies of Copernicus. Galileo was largely unmoved because his friend and supporter Maffeo Barberini subsequently became Pope Urban VIII.

Partly to aid in the defense of a student Galileo published in 1632 the quaint and esoteric Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World - Ptolemaic and Copernican. Much like what was in vogue at that time, it reports upon the dialogue between Salviati, who argues for the Copernican system, and Simplicio who is an Aristotelian philosopher. Shortly after publication, the Inquisition banned its sale and ordered Galileo to be tried.
Because Copernican theory had been heretofore declared false, Galileo didn’t stand a chance and was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Galileo died a heretic and even though he stated in his will that he wished to be buried at the family crypt inside a Basilica his relatives rightfully expected retribution from the Church and it would take close to a hundred years for this wish to be fulfilled, and even at that time, amidst great opposition.

In 1992, 350 years after Galileo's death, Pope John Paul II admitted that errors had been made by the theological advisors in the trial of Galileo. He brought closure on the case without admitting that the Church was wrong to convict Galileo at that time on a charge of heresy because of his belief that the Earth rotates round the sun.

My admiration for Galileo has only grown with my years of practice as a physician. I am confronted, daily with the problems of patients who seek my counsel because they are looking for other opinions. I have been guided, all these years by what Galileo had written long ago: “I do not think it is necessary to believe that the same God who has given us our reason and our intelligence wishes us to abandon the use of our reason or intelligence in living our lives”.

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