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The Many Trials of Galileo Galilei

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Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 58
DOI: 10.1126/science.1114624

Retrying Galileo 1633-1992 by Maurice Finocchiaro University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2005. 497 pp. $50, £32.50. ISBN 0-520-24261-0.

If you have ever wondered about Galileo and the myths that surround him, most of your questions will be answered in Maurice Finocchiaro's Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. Was Galileo tortured? Were the actual charges against him about Copernicanism and the sun-centered universe or did they stem from his attempt to tell the Catholic Church how to interpret sacred scriptures? How has Galileo been portrayed as a martyr for free science in its contest with the authority of religion? How has the Church attempted over the years to defend its action of condemning Galileo as a heretic? These questions and many more are answered in the informative tales and fascinating stories that Finocchiaro (an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas) recounts. The author's discussions of Galileo's trial and its complex, 350-plus-year aftermath allow the reader to discover the amazingly diffuse ways and purposes that make up the history of the Galileo affair.

Within the book you will encounter the saga of Napoleon, who after conquering part of Italy, in 1810 removed the Vatican archives to Paris and made plans to publish the original proceedings of Galileo's trial; following his fall in 1814, about two-thirds of the archives were destroyed or sold to cardboard manufacturers—some documents will never be recovered. Finocchiaro also recounts the intrigues and complex machinations of Giuseppe Settele's 1820 attempt to publish an astronomy textbook that treated Copernicanism and Earth's motion as a fact. The book's last story, set in 1992, tells of Pope John Paul II's sympathy for Galileo and yet how the commission he set up, under Cardinal Poupard, failed to “rehabilitate” Galileo. The author may, however, be a bit too charitable in his treatment of the attitudes of John Paul II (1).

Finocchiaro offers translations of a great number of historical documents that relate to the history of the Galileo affair, making the book a valuable resource. In his discussions of particular episodes, he typically starts by recounting some background and then presenting one or more important documents. He goes on to summarize and analyze these original reports in a nonjudgmental manner, pointing out how the positions taken compare to earlier assessments.

In a previous book (2), Finocchiaro published most of the documents relating to the trial itself, so few of these are presented in Retrying Galileo. The book begins with a description of the incidents surrounding the condemnation of Galileo in 1633. The author then moves on to tell how the news of the condemnation was promulgated and discussed. However, he withholds a surprise until a much later chapter that discusses the influential interpretation of Emil Wohlwill (1870), where he presents some important contemporary documents pertaining to Galileo's original trial. The bulk of the book lays out and analyzes reactions to and construals of the affair through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The five chapters devoted to developments in the 20th century portray the complex fate of Galileo in the hands of the modern church as well as his treatment by Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Koestler. From the many commentaries and allusions Finocchiaro discusses, it seems as though most everyone has had an opinion.

John Milton visiting Galileo.

In his Areopagitica (1644), Milton cited Galileo's condemnation to support his arguments that freedom is essential to philosophy and that censorship will harm learning.


With a good book, it is always tempting to want more. But given the work's current length, such a demand would be foolish. Nonetheless, as I read the many translated documents I wondered about the social and political contexts to the events the author recounts. What was the background of the cardinals who presided over Galileo's 1633 trial? What role did the Thirty Years War play in bringing about the condemnation? What were Napoleon's intentions in closing the Vatican and moving its archives? Given that the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death fell during the height of World War II, what were the motivating factors when Pope Pius XII began, in 1941, an attempt to “rehabilitate” Galileo? But these matters fall outside the author's stated intent, and such regrets are mere cavils.

Some questions that arise might have been clarified further. For example, papal infallibility, as Finocchiaro mentions in passing, did not become dogma until the Vatican Council of 1870. Yet we read Jean D'Alembert, the physicist and natural philosopher, writing in a 1754 contribution to the famous Encyclopédie (which he co-edited with Denis Diderot) about those people, in Italy and not in enlightened France, who believe that the Pope is infallible. D'Alembert describes Galileo's condemnation as an “error so harmful to scientific progress” and attributes the error to this belief in infallibility. So, one wonders, what was the status and force of the doctrine of papal infallibility in the pre-1870 period?

At the end of Retrying Galileo, Finocchiaro surmises that the history of the Galileo affair is not over. Interestingly, in a speech delivered at Parma, Italy, 15 March 1990, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) stated: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just” (3). Perhaps this portends the next story in the grand saga of the Galileo affair.

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