The great scientist Galileo Galilei, on this day in 1633, recanted his belief that the earth revolves around the sun.
Galileo was a devout Christian who thought of entering the priesthood as a young man. He considered the Bible inerrant, but said that readers were prone to misinterpret it, particularly in taking it all literally. In other words, the Good Book is all true, but mortal man may misinterpret that truth. While the Scriptures insisted that the Earth did not move, “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place” (Ecclesiastes), Galileo noted that the Biblical authors were simply writing from their limited perspective: Observing that the sun came up every day in the east and went down in the west, they assumed that it was moving while the Earth was at rest.
Galileo held with Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who had laid out his theories about heliocentrism 100 years earlier. Galileo’s stance raised the hackles of the Roman Inquisition, who deemed heliocentrism “foolish and absurd in philosophy,” and heretical, and ordered Galileo to cease and desist from discussing it. He did, for a time, but then, some 15 years later, wrote a book about it, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Sciences,” which made the Pope look bad by putting his own views on a sun-/earth-centered system into the mouth of a character named Simplicio (Italian for “simpleton”).
Galileo was summoned to Rome and put on trial. There he recanted, under pressure of being given over to the Inquisition. The verdict was thumbs-down, and Galileo was sentenced to house arrest, not to be tortured as had been threatened. The legend goes that, after recanting, Galileo turned away and muttered, “And yet it moves,” meaning the Earth.
Galileo went home, tail between his legs, to his villa near Florence (tough sentence!), and turned his attention to other things. He wrote “Two New Sciences,” about some of the other scientific matters he had studied early on. Einstein lauded the book, and called Galileo the father of modern science.
Galileo ended up giving the finger to the public. He died in 1642, but in 1737, during a move to an upgraded resting place, three fingers and a tooth were pried from his remains. The middle finger of his right hand is still on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence.
In his Letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, written in 1615, Galileo wrote: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”