A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter IV
The new cosmology
Galileo Galilei
While Kepler was solving these riddles of planetary motion, there was an even more famous man in Italy whose championship of the Copernican doctrine was destined to give the greatest possible publicity to the new ideas. This was Galileo Galilei, one of the most extraordinary scientific observers of any age. Galileo was born at Pisa, on the 18th of February (old style), 1564. The day of his birth is doubly memorable, since on the same day the greatest Italian of the preceding epoch, Michael Angelo, breathed his last. Persons fond of symbolism have found in the coincidence a forecast of the transit from the artistic to the scientific epoch of the later Renaissance. Galileo came of an impoverished noble family. He was educated for the profession of medicine, but did not progress far before his natural proclivities directed him towards the physical sciences. Meeting with opposition in Pisa, he early accepted a call to the chair of natural philosophy in the University of Padua, and later in life he made his home at Florence. The mechanical and physical discoveries of Galileo will claim our attention in another chapter. Our present concern is with his contribution to the Copernican theory.

Galileo himself records in a letter to Kepler that he became a convert to this theory at an early day. He was not enabled, however, to make any marked contribution to the subject, beyond the influence of his general teachings, until about the year 1610. The brilliant contributions which he made were due largely to a single discovery - namely, that of the telescope. Hitherto the astronomical observations had been made with the unaided eye. Glass lenses had been known since the thirteenth century, but, until now, no one had thought of their possible use as aids to distant vision. The question of priority of discovery has never been settled. It is admitted, however, that the chief honors belong to the opticians of the Netherlands.

As early as the year 1590 the Dutch optician Zacharias Jensen placed a concave and a convex lens respectively at the ends of a tube about eighteen inches long, and used this instrument for the purpose of magnifying small objects - producing, in short, a crude microscope. Some years later, Johannes Lippershey, of whom not much is known except that he died in 1619, experimented with a somewhat similar combination of lenses, and made the startling observation that the weather-vane on a distant church-steeple seemed to be brought much nearer when viewed through the lens. The combination of lenses he employed is that still used in the construction of opera-glasses; the Germans still call such a combination a Dutch telescope.

Doubtless a large number of experimenters took the matter up and the fame of the new instrument spread rapidly abroad. Galileo, down in Italy, heard rumors of this remarkable contrivance, through the use of which it was said "distant objects might be seen as clearly as those near at hand." He at once set to work to construct for himself a similar instrument, and his efforts were so far successful that at first he "saw objects three times as near and nine times enlarged." Continuing his efforts, he presently so improved his glass that objects were enlarged almost a thousand times and made to appear thirty times nearer than when seen with the naked eye. Naturally enough, Galileo turned this fascinating instrument towards the skies, and he was almost immediately rewarded by several startling discoveries. At the very outset, his magnifying-glass brought to view a vast number of stars that are invisible to the naked eye, and enabled the observer to reach the conclusion that the hazy light of the Milky Way is merely due to the aggregation of a vast number of tiny stars.

Turning his telescope towards the moon, Galileo found that body rough and earth-like in contour, its surface covered with mountains, whose height could be approximately measured through study of their shadows. This was disquieting, because the current Aristotelian doctrine supposed the moon, in common with the planets, to be a perfectly spherical, smooth body. The metaphysical idea of a perfect universe was sure to be disturbed by this seemingly rough workmanship of the moon. Thus far, however, there was nothing in the observations of Galileo to bear directly upon the Copernican theory; but when an inspection was made of the planets the case was quite different. With the aid of his telescope, Galileo saw that Venus, for example, passes through phases precisely similar to those of the moon, due, of course, to the same cause. Here, then, was demonstrative evidence that the planets are dark bodies reflecting the light of the sun, and an explanation was given of the fact, hitherto urged in opposition to the Copernican theory, that the inferior planets do not seem many times brighter when nearer the earth than when in the most distant parts of their orbits; the explanation being, of course, that when the planets are between the earth and the sun only a small portion of their illumined surfaces is visible from the earth.

On inspecting the planet Jupiter, a still more striking revelation was made, as four tiny stars were observed to occupy an equatorial position near that planet, and were seen, when watched night after night, to be circling about the planet, precisely as the moon circles about the earth. Here, obviously, was a miniature solar system - a tangible object-lesson in the Copernican theory. In honor of the ruling Florentine house of the period, Galileo named these moons of Jupiter, Medicean stars.

Turning attention to the sun itself, Galileo observed on the surface of that luminary a spot or blemish which gradually changed its shape, suggesting that changes were taking place in the substance of the sun - changes obviously incompatible with the perfect condition demanded by the metaphysical theorists. But however disquieting for the conservative, the sun's spots served a most useful purpose in enabling Galileo to demonstrate that the sun itself revolves on its axis, since a given spot was seen to pass across the disk and after disappearing to reappear in due course. The period of rotation was found to be about twenty-four days.

It must be added that various observers disputed priority of discovery of the sun's spots with Galileo. Unquestionably a sun-spot had been seen by earlier observers, and by them mistaken for the transit of an inferior planet. Kepler himself had made this mistake. Before the day of the telescope, he had viewed the image of the sun as thrown on a screen in a camera-obscura, and had observed a spot on the disk which be interpreted as representing the planet Mercury, but which, as is now known, must have been a sun-spot, since the planetary disk is too small to have been revealed by this method. Such observations as these, however interesting, cannot be claimed as discoveries of the sun-spots. It is probable, however, that several discoverers (notably Johann Fabricius) made the telescopic observation of the spots, and recognized them as having to do with the sun's surface, almost simultaneously with Galileo. One of these claimants was a Jesuit named Scheiner, and the jealousy of this man is said to have had a share in bringing about that persecution to which we must now refer.

There is no more famous incident in the history of science than the heresy trial through which Galileo was led to the nominal renunciation of his cherished doctrines. There is scarcely another incident that has been commented upon so variously. Each succeeding generation has put its own interpretation on it. The facts, however, have been but little questioned. It appears that in the year 1616 the church became at last aroused to the implications of the heliocentric doctrine of the universe. Apparently it seemed clear to the church authorities that the authors of the Bible believed the world to be immovably fixed at the centre of the universe. Such, indeed, would seem to be the natural inference from various familiar phrases of the Hebrew text, and what we now know of the status of Oriental science in antiquity gives full warrant to this interpretation. There is no reason to suppose that the conception of the subordinate place of the world in the solar system had ever so much as occurred, even as a vague speculation, to the authors of Genesis. In common with their contemporaries, they believed the earth to be the all-important body in the universe, and the sun a luminary placed in the sky for the sole purpose of giving light to the earth. There is nothing strange, nothing anomalous, in this view; it merely reflects the current notions of Oriental peoples in antiquity. What is strange and anomalous is the fact that the Oriental dreamings thus expressed could have been supposed to represent the acme of scientific knowledge. Yet such a hold had these writings taken upon the Western world that not even a Galileo dared contradict them openly; and when the church fathers gravely declared the heliocentric theory necessarily false, because contradictory to Scripture, there were probably few people in Christendom whose mental attitude would permit them justly to appreciate the humor of such a pronouncement. And, indeed, if here and there a man might have risen to such an appreciation, there were abundant reasons for the repression of the impulse, for there was nothing humorous about the response with which the authorities of the time were wont to meet the expression of iconoclastic opinions. The burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, in the year 1600, was, for example, an object-lesson well calculated to restrain the enthusiasm of other similarly minded teachers.

Doubtless it was such considerations that explained the relative silence of the champions of the Copernican theory, accounting for the otherwise inexplicable fact that about eighty years elapsed after the death of Copernicus himself before a single text-book expounded his theory. The text-book which then appeared, under date of 1622, was written by the famous Kepler, who perhaps was shielded in a measure from the papal consequences of such hardihood by the fact of residence in a Protestant country. Not that the Protestants of the time favored the heliocentric doctrine - we have already quoted Luther in an adverse sense - but of course it was characteristic of the Reformation temper to oppose any papal pronouncement, hence the ultramontane declaration of 1616 may indirectly have aided the doctrine which it attacked, by making that doctrine less obnoxious to Lutheran eyes. Be that as it may, the work of Kepler brought its author into no direct conflict with the authorities. But the result was quite different when, in 1632, Galileo at last broke silence and gave the world, under cover of the form of dialogue, an elaborate exposition of the Copernican theory. Galileo, it must be explained, had previously been warned to keep silent on the subject, hence his publication doubly offended the authorities. To be sure, he could reply that his dialogue introduced a champion of the Ptolemaic system to dispute with the upholder of the opposite view, and that, both views being presented with full array of argument, the reader was left to reach a verdict for himself, the author having nowhere pointedly expressed an opinion. But such an argument, of course, was specious, for no one who read the dialogue could be in doubt as to the opinion of the author. Moreover, it was hinted that Simplicio, the character who upheld the Ptolemaic doctrine and who was everywhere worsted in the argument, was intended to represent the pope himself - a suggestion which probably did no good to Galileo's cause.

The character of Galileo's artistic presentation may best be judged from an example, illustrating the vigorous assault of Salviati, the champion of the new theory, and the feeble retorts of his conservative antagonist:

"Salviati. Let us then begin our discussion with the consideration that, whatever motion may be attributed to the earth, yet we, as dwellers upon it, and hence as participators in its motion, cannot possibly perceive anything of it, presupposing that we are to consider only earthly things. On the other hand, it is just as necessary that this same motion belong apparently to all other bodies and visible objects, which, being separated from the earth, do not take part in its motion. The correct method to discover whether one can ascribe motion to the earth, and what kind of motion, is, therefore, to investigate and observe whether in bodies outside the earth a perceptible motion may be discovered which belongs to all alike. Because a movement which is perceptible only in the moon, for instance, and has nothing to do with Venus or Jupiter or other stars, cannot possibly be peculiar to the earth, nor can its seat be anywhere else than in the moon. Now there is one such universal movement which controls all others - namely, that which the sun, moon, the other planets, the fixed stars - in short, the whole universe, with the single exception of the earth - appears to execute from east to west in the space of twenty-four hours. This now, as it appears at the first glance anyway, might just as well be a motion of the earth alone as of all the rest of the universe with the exception of the earth, for the same phenomena would result from either hypothesis. Beginning with the most general, I will enumerate the reasons which seem to speak in favor of the earth's motion. When we merely consider the immensity of the starry sphere in comparison with the smallness of the terrestrial ball, which is contained many million times in the former, and then think of the rapidity of the motion which completes a whole rotation in one day and night, I cannot persuade myself how any one can hold it to be more reasonable and credible that it is the heavenly sphere which rotates, while the earth stands still.

"Simplicio. I do not well understand how that powerful motion may be said to as good as not exist for the sun, the moon, the other planets, and the innumerable host of fixed stars. Do you call that nothing when the sun goes from one meridian to another, rises up over this horizon and sinks behind that one, brings now day, and now night; when the moon goes through similar changes, and the other planets and fixed stars in the same way?

"Salviati. All the changes you mention are such only in respect to the earth. To convince yourself of it, only imagine the earth out of existence. There would then be no rising and setting of the sun or of the moon, no horizon, no meridian, no day, no night - in short, the said motion causes no change of any sort in the relation of the sun to the moon or to any of the other heavenly bodies, be they planets or fixed stars. All changes are rather in respect to the earth; they may all be reduced to the simple fact that the sun is first visible in China, then in Persia, afterwards in Egypt, Greece, France, Spain, America, etc., and that the same thing happens with the moon and the other heavenly bodies. Exactly the same thing happens and in exactly the same way if, instead of disturbing so large a part of the universe, you let the earth revolve about itself. The difficulty is, however, doubled, inasmuch as a second very important problem presents itself. If, namely, that powerful motion is ascribed to the heavens, it is absolutely necessary to regard it as opposed to the individual motion of all the planets, every one of which indubitably has its own very leisurely and moderate movement from west to east. If, on the other hand, you let the earth move about itself, this opposition of motion disappears.

"The improbability is tripled by the complete overthrow of that order which rules all the heavenly bodies in which the revolving motion is definitely established. The greater the sphere is in such a case, so much longer is the time required for its revolution; the smaller the sphere the shorter the time. Saturn, whose orbit surpasses those of all the planets in size, traverses it in thirty years. Jupiter[4] completes its smaller course in twelve years, Mars in two; the moon performs its much smaller revolution within a month. Just as clearly in the Medicean stars, we see that the one nearest Jupiter completes its revolution in a very short time - about forty-two hours; the next in about three and one-half days, the third in seven, and the most distant one in sixteen days. This rule, which is followed throughout, will still remain if we ascribe the twenty-four-hourly motion to a rotation of the earth. If, however, the earth is left motionless, we must go first from the very short rule of the moon to ever greater ones - to the two-yearly rule of Mars, from that to the twelve-yearly one of Jupiter, from here to the thirty-yearly one of Saturn, and then suddenly to an incomparably greater sphere, to which also we must ascribe a complete rotation in twenty-four hours. If, however, we assume a motion of the earth, the rapidity of the periods is very well preserved; from the slowest sphere of Saturn we come to the wholly motionless fixed stars. We also escape thereby a fourth difficulty, which arises as soon as we assume that there is motion in the sphere of the stars. I mean the great unevenness in the movement of these very stars, some of which would have to revolve with extraordinary rapidity in immense circles, while others moved very slowly in small circles, since some of them are at a greater, others at a less, distance from the pole. That is likewise an inconvenience, for, on the one hand, we see all those stars, the motion of which is indubitable, revolve in great circles, while, on the other hand, there seems to be little object in placing bodies, which are to move in circles, at an enormous distance from the centre and then let them move in very small circles. And not only are the size of the different circles and therewith the rapidity of the movement very different in the different fixed stars, but the same stars also change their orbits and their rapidity of motion. Therein consists the fifth inconvenience. Those stars, namely, which were at the equator two thousand years ago, and hence described great circles in their revolutions, must to-day move more slowly and in smaller circles, because they are many degrees removed from it. It will even happen, after not so very long a time, that one of those which have hitherto been continually in motion will finally coincide with the pole and stand still, but after a period of repose will again begin to move. The other stars in the mean while, which unquestionably move, all have, as was said, a great circle for an orbit and keep this unchangeably.

"The improbability is further increased - this may be considered the sixth inconvenience - by the fact that it is impossible to conceive what degree of solidity those immense spheres must have, in the depths of which so many stars are fixed so enduringly that they are kept revolving evenly in spite of such difference of motion without changing their respective positions. Or if, according to the much more probable theory, the heavens are fluid, and every star describes an orbit of its own, according to what law then, or for what reason, are their orbits so arranged that, when looked at from the earth, they appear to be contained in one single sphere? To attain this it seems to me much easier and more convenient to make them motionless instead of moving, just as the paving-stones on the market-place, for instance, remain in order more easily than the swarms of children running about on them.

"Finally, the seventh difficulty: If we attribute the daily rotation to the higher region of the heavens, we should have to endow it with force and power sufficient to carry with it the innumerable host of the fixed stars - every one a body of very great compass and much larger than the earth - and all the planets, although the latter, like the earth, move naturally in an opposite direction. In the midst of all this the little earth, single and alone, would obstinately and wilfully withstand such force - a supposition which, it appears to me, has much against it. I could also not explain why the earth, a freely poised body, balancing itself about its centre, and surrounded on all sides by a fluid medium, should not be affected by the universal rotation. Such difficulties, however, do not confront us if we attribute motion to the earth - such a small, insignificant body in comparison with the whole universe, and which for that very reason cannot exercise any power over the latter.

"Simplicio. You support your arguments throughout, it seems to me, on the greater ease and simplicity with which the said effects are produced. You mean that as a cause the motion of the earth alone is just as satisfactory as the motion of all the rest of the universe with the exception of the earth; you hold the actual event to be much easier in the former case than in the latter. For the ruler of the universe, however, whose might is infinite, it is no less easy to move the universe than the earth or a straw balm. But if his power is infinite, why should not a greater, rather than a very small, part of it be revealed to me?

"Salviati. If I had said that the universe does not move on account of the impotence of its ruler, I should have been wrong and your rebuke would have been in order. I admit that it is just as easy for an infinite power to move a hundred thousand as to move one. What I said, however, does not refer to him who causes the motion, but to that which is moved. In answer to your remark that it is more fitting for an infinite power to reveal a large part of itself rather than a little, I answer that, in relation to the infinite, one part is not greater than another, if both are finite. Hence it is unallowable to say that a hundred thousand is a larger part of an infinite number than two, although the former is fifty thousand times greater than the latter. If, therefore, we consider the moving bodies, we must unquestionably regard the motion of the earth as a much simpler process than that of the universe; if, furthermore, we direct our attention to so many other simplifications which may be reached only by this theory, the daily movement of the earth must appear much more probable than the motion of the universe without the earth, for, according to Aristotle's just axiom, 'Frustra fit per plura, quod potest fieri per p auciora' (It is vain to expend many means where a few are sufficient)."[2]

 The work was widely circulated, and it was received with an interest which bespeaks a wide-spread undercurrent of belief in the Copernican doctrine. Naturally enough, it attracted immediate attention from the church authorities. Galileo was summoned to appear at Rome to defend his conduct. The philosopher, who was now in his seventieth year, pleaded age and infirmity. He had no desire for personal experience of the tribunal of the Inquisition; but the mandate was repeated, and Galileo went to Rome. There, as every one knows, he disavowed any intention to oppose the teachings of Scripture, and formally renounced the heretical doctrine of the earth's motion. According to a tale which so long passed current that every historian must still repeat it though no one now believes it authentic, Galileo qualified his renunciation by muttering to himself, "E pur si muove" (It does move, none the less), as he rose to his feet and retired from the presence of his persecutors. The tale is one of those fictions which the dramatic sense of humanity is wont to impose upon history, but, like most such fictions, it expresses the spirit if not the letter of truth; for just as no one believes that Galileo's lips uttered the phrase, so no one doubts that the rebellious words were in his mind.

After his formal renunciation, Galileo was allowed to depart, but with the injunction that he abstain in future from heretical teaching. The remaining ten years of his life were devoted chiefly to mechanics, where his experiments fortunately opposed the Aristotelian rather than the Hebrew teachings. Galileo's death occurred in 1642, a hundred years after the death of Copernicus. Kepler had died thirteen years before, and there remained no astronomer in the field who is conspicuous in the history of science as a champion of the Copernican doctrine. But in truth it might be said that the theory no longer needed a champion. The researches of Kepler and Galileo had produced a mass of evidence for the Copernican theory which amounted to demonstration. A generation or two might be required for this evidence to make itself everywhere known among men of science, and of course the ecclesiastical authorities must be expected to stand by their guns for a somewhat longer period. In point of fact, the ecclesiastical ban was not technically removed by the striking of the Copernican books from the list of the Index Expurgatorius until the year 1822, almost two hundred years after the date of Galileo's dialogue. But this, of course, is in no sense a guide to the state of general opinion regarding the theory. We shall gain a true gauge as to this if we assume that the greater number of important thinkers had accepted the heliocentric doctrine before the middle of the seventeenth century, and that before the close of that century the old Ptolemaic idea had been quite abandoned. A wonderful revolution in man's estimate of the universe had thus been effected within about two centuries after the birth of Copernicus.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.