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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Newest (and Oldest) Take on Galileo's Trial

The first biography of Galileo, written only 20 years after his death and long thought lost, has re-emerged after almost 200 years, proposing a unique explanation for the astronomer's famous trial. Thomas Salusbury's Life of Galileo (also known as Galilaeus Galilaeus His Life: In Five Books), written in 1664 and nearly destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, suggests that the trial was spurred not by a clash between science and religion, but by the Pope's desire to punish the Duke of Medici, a personal friend of Galileo's, because the duke refused to support Rome during the Thirty Years' War.
"There's been a very long discussion about the trial—what happened, who won—and to some extent that's still going on today," Nick Wilding, an historian of science at Georgia State University who recently rediscovered the manuscript at a library auction in England, tells Smithsonian Magazine. "The usual interpretation is that this was the great rift between science and religion. You've got this arrogant scientist up against a dogmatic church, and in that head-ramming, the pope's going to win." Salusbury's theory, says Wilding, "feels right" and "might provide some closure to a still-festering wound."
Even if the theory is wrong or mere extrapolation, it's "interesting to see how people at that time, from outside Italy, are starting to reconstruct Galileo's life," Stanford University historian Paula Findlen says in the magazine. And even if you disagree with the interpretation, she says, it does go to show that, from the beginning, people assumed something political—rather than religious—lay at the root of the trial, an assumption that matches the belief of many modern Galileo scholars. —Stephen Mapes