A 400-years-old Letter Reveals how Galileo wanted to Fool the Inquisition

A 400-years-old Letter Reveals how Galileo wanted to Fool the Inquisition

Galileo changed his original letter to make it less inflammatory but it was a bit too late.

Galileo Galilei was an Italian polymath who revolutionized the world of Mathematics, Engineering, Astronomy, Physics, and Philosophy. His achievements earned him the titles of the ‘Father of Modern Physics’, the ‘Father of Observational Astronomy’, and the ‘Father of Science’. He made some incredible contributions to the field of observational astronomy. Some of the biggest among them include the finding of the four largest moons of the Jupiter, the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, and the observation of Saturn. In addition to that, he showed his brilliance in applied science and technology by inventing a number of military compasses and the thermoscope.

Galileo was seriously interested in priesthood during the days of his youth but his father pushed him for a medical degree. Consequently, he got an admission at the University of Pisa in 1580. A year later, he requested his father to let him study mathematics and natural philosophy instead of medicine after noticing the swing of a chandelier. He observed that the time taken by the chandelier to swing back and forth remains the same irrespective of the length of the arc. This was the first step towards the glory Galileo achieved in his life.

The phenomenon of Heliocentrism is the most controversial theory of Galileo’s life, which ultimately led to his house arrest. During those days, the majority of the people subscribed either to the ‘Tychonic System’ (combination of Heliocentrism and Geocentrism) or to the ‘Aristotelian Geocentric View’. According to this theory, Earth is the center of the universe and all the other heavenly bodies revolve around it. Galileo tried to promote Heliocentrism on the basis of his astronomical observations but faced scientific as well as religious objections. His writings were submitted to the Roman Inquisition in 1615 and the judgment was concluded in the following words:

“Heliocentrism is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”

Galileo defended his ideas about Heliocentrism in a book called ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’ in 1632. The Jesuits and Pope Urban VIII were supporting him until this point but this writing seemed a direct attack on them and Galileo was tried by the Inquisition. He was found guilty and spent the remaining years of his life in house arrest. Having said that, a recent finding reveals that he realized the severity of the situation and toned down his views to avoid angering the Church.

Salvatore Ricciardo, a Science Historian from the University of Bergamo, found a 400-years-old letter which could put an end to a long-lasting debate: whether the writings of Galileo were tailored to sound more extreme or did he actually use inflammatory language. Ricciardo was searching through a catalog stored in the Royal Society Library in the United Kingdom when he came across this historic note. He mentioned his feelings by saying,

I thought, ‘I can’t believe that I have discovered the letter that virtually all Galileo scholars thought to be hopelessly lost. It seemed even more incredible because the letter was not in an obscure library, but in the Royal Society library.”

Despite the fact that this letter is the first written record of Galileo’s heliocentric view, there are two versions of this historic text. During those days, the Church was pretty certain that the Earth is the center of the universe but Galileo supported the idea of Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer who suggested that in 1543. This resulted in a conflict between Galileo and the Vatican.

Galileo always stressed that his views were not as extreme as presented. He claimed that the letter was edited before passing it on to the Church. Contrary to his statements, this newly-found note suggests that Galileo changed the wording of the original letter and passed the edited version to the Vatican. He replaced certain harsh words with less inflammatory ones in the edited version. For instance, he replaced ‘false’ with ‘look different from the truth’. However, he was a bit late in doing so as the original copy was already transferred to the authorities by Niccolò Lorini, a Dominican friar.

Galileo’s signatures, handwriting analysis, and the date of the document prove the authenticity of this letter. Researchers are a bit bewildered at the fact that it was found at the Royal Society Library and are trying to figure out how it got there. The Postdoc Supervisor of Ricciardo, Franco Giudice, talked about that and said,

Strange as it might seem, it has gone unnoticed for centuries as if it were transparent. Galileo’s letter to Castelli is one of the first secular manifestos about the freedom of science – it’s the first time in my life I have been involved in such a thrilling discovery.”

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