Galileo in Rome

by William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas
hardcover - 226 pages
Oxford University Press

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

by Dava Sobel
paperback - 420 pages
Penguin Books

Between Kobe Bryant, Scott Peterson, and Martha Stewart, there has been no shortage of high profile court actions this year. But none of these is likely to exhibit the long term fascination or cultural influence of the trial of one Galileo Galilei by the Roman Inquisition 371 years ago. The "Galileo Affair" is alleged by many to be the classic example of "the war between Science and Religion." More myths have been spawned, words have been penned, and hot air generated by it than by any other event in the history of astronomy, and yet every generation finds more in it to discover and comment upon. Every three or four years another scientist/theologian/historian/biographer will produce a new, perhaps even revolutionary, interpretation.

However, the Galileo Affair was not a neat academic debate between two opposing camps with clearly identified philosophical positions, but rather a twenty year long guerrilla war between a brilliant, proud, argumentative proto-scientist and his friends vs. a motley crew of opponents. Some of Galileo's most dedicated supporters were church officials while some of his most intransigent opponents were university professors of philosophy and competing astronomers. Simple, black and white interpretations belie the complexity of the confrontation. Fortunately for the modern reader, two recent books serve as reliable guides through the labyrinthian twists of early 17th Century Italian court and Vatican politics and the extravagant characters who contended there.

Galileo in Rome is by William Shea and Mariano Artigas, both well known Galileo scholars. Shea holds the Galileo Chair in History of Science at the University of Padua and Artigas is Prof. of Philosophy of Science and Dean of the Ecclesiastical Faculty of Philosophy at University of Navarra. Focusing on the six trips to Rome that Galileo made during his career, their book gives a balanced view of the theological questions and political intrigues of the time and the authorities with whom Galileo came into conflict. While they present no startling discoveries (a "Perry Mason"-like revelation is unlikely after nearly four centuries) Shea and Artigas lay out clearly and neatly all the theological, political, and personal issues which contributed to "the Affair." They also provide the historical background necessary to understand what was, to us, the alien society of courtier and patron politics.

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel was a major best-seller when released four years ago. If, like me, you didn't have the chance to read it then, let me urge you to try this marvelous book now. Sobel's forte, evinced so well in her previous book, Longitude, is to immerse us in the details of life in an earlier time. Sobel's able and detailed historical commentary, make clear the extent, all too easily forgotten by modern readers, to which disease, especially bubonic plague, controlled people's lives and journeys four centuries ago. While the central character is Galileo, we see him through colorful, contemporary letters, most written by his admiring and devoted older daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, a Poor Clare nun. The result is that we meet Galileo not "just" as the brilliant natural philosopher and mathematician who laid the foundations of modern experimental science, but as a loving father with constant health and family problems that often distract him from his studies, and vice versa. The letters make clear the very human side of "The Affair", Galileo constantly helping out the his daughters' convent and the workers on his farm -- Suor Maria Celeste, the convent apothecary, preparing her father's herbal medicines and unguents and his favorite citron candies. Suor Maria, herself a fascinating, very human, yet saintly character, also prepared the final written copy of her father's famous Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems for the printer. One comes away with a strong impression of the deep religious faith of both Galileo and his daughter and their devotion to one another, particularly in the book's epilogue on the touching discovery made at the opening of Galileo's tomb.

Both Galileo in Rome and Galileo's Daughter make clear that in the Galileo Affair "mistakes were made" and misunderstandings could be found on both sides. Galileo was a contentious and stiff necked old fellow who made more scientific than theological errors in the dispute, while Pope Urban VIII, worried about appearing weak in a time of war, reacted angrily when it appeared that Galileo, an old friend whom he had called "his brother," had publicly "dissed" him. Oddly, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (in the 1616 phase) and later the Inquisition were more in line with the modern philosophy of science, in that Galileo considered his theories TRUE, while the Church considered them only working hypotheses. However, the Church hierarchy made the grave error of aligning Church theology with one particular scientific model (geocentrism -- an Earth centered universe). Three centuries later, when Pope Pius XII raised the possibility of officially linking Creation with the newly discovered Big Bang Theory in Church doctrine, Abbe Georges leMaitre, originator of the Big Bang model, strongly advised against it. The pope wisely followed his advice. Scientific models must by their nature ebb and flow and metamorphose, and linking your theology to one is building your house upon sand.