Just four centuries ago, most still believed the earth was the the center of the universe. At least, the major governing bodies did…or wanted the populace to…. And, on this day, 385 years ago, the Inquisition forced Galileo Galilei to say he was wrong — that the Earth did not revolve around the sun.
Galileo had made the proclamation in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, and whether he really believed his words that summer day is debatable. Legend has it, after he recanted his views, Galileo muttered, “And yet it moves.”
Many people believe Galileo was hounded by the church for almost two decades, that he openly maintained a belief in heliocentrism, and that he was only spared torture and death because his powerful friends intervened on his behalf. An examination of the fine details of Galileo’s conflict with church leaders does not necessarily bear that out, according to UCLA English department’s distinguished research professor, Henry Kelly.
“We can only guess at what he really believed,” said Kelly in an article published in 2016. His research undertook a thorough examination of the judicial procedure used by the church in its investigation of Galileo. “Galileo was clearly stretching the truth when he maintained at his trial in 1633 that after 1616 he had never considered heliocentrism to be possible. Admitting otherwise would have increased the penance he was given, but would not have endangered his life, since he agreed to renounce the heresy — and in fact it would have spared him even the threat of torture.”
When first summoned by the Roman Inquisition years before, in 1616, Galileo was not questioned but merely warned not to espouse heliocentrism. In the same year, the church banned Nicholas Copernicus’ book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,” published in 1543. This was one of the first major scientific works detailing a theory the Earth revolved around the sun. After a few minor edits, making sure that the sun theory was presented as purely hypothetical, it was allowed again in 1620 with the blessing of the church.
Sixteen years after his first encounter with the church, Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, and the pope, Urban VIII, ordered another investigation against him. This time, he was prosecuted, following the usual methods of the Roman Inquisition.
The atmosphere in Italy at the time Galileo was writing his book was tense. The Inquisition was at peak intensity, and even more significantly, the bubonic plague was sweeping the country. Travel and communication were extremely difficult, creating an infectious sense of fear in the population.
Before Dialogue was published, Galileo was favored by the Church, even earning a pension from the pope; but officials were angered by the book’s content. The plot featured three characters – a simpleton, a student and a sage – who debated the structure of the solar system. The simpleton supported an Earth-centered view of the solar system, was subsequently proven wrong and ridiculed by the other characters. This was considered to be heresy as it ran contrary to the modern views of the Church. For Rome, the earth, and Rome itself, was at the center of everything. The book undermined contemporary ideas about the structure of the universe and the placement of heaven and hell.
“It made the universe physical,” says David DeVorkin, curator at the Air and Space Museum. “Then, people had to ask, ‘where in the world is heaven?’” In addition, Dialogue was a public offense to a number of officials who believed the character of the simpleton was, in part, a representation of themselves.“The real issue was the nature…that seemed to lampoon some sensitive personalities who were either on the Inquisition or were advisors or patrons or something,” DeVorkin said. “They did not want to be made out as fools.”
First, on April 12, 1633, before any charges were laid against him, Galileo was forced to testify about his beliefs under oath in hopes of obtaining a confession. This had long been a standard practice in heresy proceedings, even though it was a violation of the canonical law of inquisitorial due process. However, the interrogation was not successful – Galileo admitted no wrongdoing.
The cardinal inquisitors realized the case against Galileo would be very weak without an admission of guilt, so a plea bargain was arranged. He was told, if he admitted to having gone too far in his treatment of heliocentrism, he would be let off with a light punishment. Galileo agreed and confessed he had given stronger arguments to the heliocentric proponent in his dialogue than to the geocentric champion. He insisted he did not do so because he believed in heliocentrism. Rather, he claimed he was simply showing off his debating skills.
After his formal trial, which concluded on June 22nd of that year, Galileo was convicted of a “strong suspicion of heresy,” a lesser charge than actual heresy. “In sum, the 1616 event was not the beginning of a 17-year-long trial, as is often said, but a non-trial,” Kelly said. “Galileo’s actual trial time lasted for only a fraction of a single day, with no fanfare at all.”
Kelly also noted the Inquisition practice of the time, in light of Galileo’s guilty plea, which denied actual belief in the heresy, triggered another automatic examination of his private beliefs under torture. This was a new procedure adopted by the church around the turn of the 17th century. However, the pope decreed the interrogation should stop short at the mere threat. This was a routine kind of limitation for people of advanced age and ill health, like Galileo, and some say it should not be attributed to the influence of the scientist’s supporters.
Ultimately, Galieo’s book was banned, and he was sentenced to a light regimen of penance and imprisonment at the discretion of church inquisitors. After one day in prison, his punishment was commuted to “villa arrest” for the rest of his life. He died in 1642. In his final years, while most say Galileo insisted on the truth of the heliocentric solar system, Kelly estimates, “He would have been liable to receive an automatic death sentence.”
For its part, the church maintained efforts to ensure their version of scientific beliefs prevailed. “The most unusual aspect of the proceedings was that the sentence was ordered to be widely publicized in scientific circles,” Kelly said. “The cardinals asserted Galileo had always been orthodox in his belief concerning the cosmos and had never believed in or affirmed the heliocentric heresy.”
Today, he is celebrated as one of the world’s most disruptive scientists. Galileo’s assertion that the planets revolved around the sun, in addition to his myriad other contributions to physics and astronomy, became integral, pivotal portions of the evolution of how we view the universe. Using his own telescope design, he collected and cobbled together mountains of evidence supporting the Copernicun Revolution. “He really was one of the first modern scientists,” DeVorkin said. “He added rigorous observation to the scientific toolkit. He also added the earliest concepts of relativity and theories of infinity.”
If you have read this far, you are likely wondering why on earth this article is even on a healthcare website blog. Two reasons, really. It points to how not too distant resistance to change in strongly held beliefs, even in light of ever increasing evidence, can hold back progress; and to the importance of innovating passionately. Both of these are critical to making breakthroughs in medicine.
We can’t claim to be putting our lives on the line for constant improvement and welcome Inquisition into what we are doing. Still, every day, we at HealthLynked place getting better, each day, for you, at the center of how we operate.
And we believe you, the patient and your care team, are the center of healthcare. Many are starting to agree. We certainly aren’t Galileo and Copernicus, here, but we are working really hard to make it possible for patients to take control of their medical information in ways never before possible so they may truly collaborate to Improve HealthCare.
Patient-centric medicine is at the center of want we do. We and all the physicians in the HealthLynked network want to revolve around you.
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