Friday, November 25, 2011

Galileo Galilei

Florence Italy – July 2010

Galileo Galilei embodies the wrenching philosophical and theological collision that occurred as a result of the Renaissance. He’s called by Albert Einstein ‘the father of modern science’, yet his life and ideas were shaped profoundly by his experience with the medieval Catholic Church. I had the chance to see Galileo’s tomb at Santa Croce during a trip to Florence, Italy with my brother and daughter Kelsey and her friend Sarah a couple of years ago. There will be more entries from this amazing historic site in the future.

Galileo's telescope

Galileo was born in Pisa, Italy in 1564, the day of Michelangelo’s death, in the same year as William Shakespeare's birth. Early in his life Galileo considered entering the priesthood, but eventually chose to study mathematics at the University of Pisa. Upon completion of his degree the gifted young scholar took a position at the Accademia in Florence, where his family had moved when he was a youth. But it was as a professor at the University of Padua where Galileo’s greatest scientific theories and the controversies surrounding them emerged.

Galileo distinguished himself in a number of fields, particularly making significant advances in the development of the telescope. But it was his embrace of Copernican astronomy that brought him both fame and clerical opposition. Copernicus’ (1473-1543) theory that the earth was not the center of the universe had been condemned by the church. Through his own scientific inquiry Galileo came to adopt heliocentrism – the position that the sun was the center of the universe.

Galileo's recantation

In 1615 his advocacy of this position brought rebuke from the Roman Inquisition. Responding to this rebuke Galileo agreed to no longer teach on the view. But in 1632 Galileo published his “Dialogue Between Two World Systems” where he sought to present the worldview controversy as a reasoned discussion (which ultimately favored heliocentrism). The Vatican was not impressed, and subsequently convicted Galileo of heresy, banning the publication of any of his works extant or to be written in the future. He was also sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Galileo lived another ten years after this controversy, dying at the relatively advanced age of 77 in 1642.  In 1992 Pope John Paul II rescinded the condemnation of Galileo by the church.

For a contemporary take on Galileo check out this video of Irish singer Declan O'Rourke doing his song "Galileo - Someone Like You".  

Painting of Galileo's Inquisition

Galileo is buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, immediately across the main sanctuary area from Michelangelo

My daughter Kelsey - the Vanna White of Santa Croce - in front of
of Galileo's tomb - Galileo's image is carved looking to the stars

What I find interesting about Galileo is that he is not the anti-religious rationalist of the Scientific Revolution that he is so often characterized to be. While he was a man with moral shortcomings (bearing two illegitimate daughters with a mistress), he was a scholar who approached the scientific endeavor with a deeply theological bent. Galileo did not see himself as a man caught between scripture and science but between the church and science. His views were actually not inconsistent with those of the Reformer John Calvin. He had a high view of the inerrancy and authority of scripture, and considered the erroneous doctrine of an earth-centered universe as an issue of poor interpretation and reading into texts by the church. Galileo believed that scripture, as rightly understood, would not contradict valid scientific evidence. The words Galileo desired to be carved as his epitaph at the end of his life speaks to his deeply God-centered view of his life and scientific pursuits.

“To the Lord; whom I worship and thank;

That governs the heavens with His eyelid

To Him I return tired, but full of living.”


Statue of Galileo at the Uffizi Plaza
in Florence

Other blog subjects buried at Santa Croce:


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