That’s one of many pictures of Galileo before the Inquisition.
May 18, 2012

Galileo Goes to Jail

If you’re of a certain age you may have seen a movie, I think it’s the one with Frederic March, in which Columbus argues before the court of Ferdinand and Isabella that the earth is round. My recollection is that he demonstrates this by some trick with an egg. So did Columbus prove the earth was round? Did Galileo go to jail?

The idea of warfare between science and religion can be traced to two American propagandists for the notion: Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper. They both advocated the idea that Christianity, and in Draper’s case Catholicism in particular, conflicted with the cause of truth, i.e., science, as White and Draper understood science..

A series of myths have grown up around this idea. Ronald Numbers and the assorted writers here, who come from a variety of religious beliefs, or non-belief, set the record straight here.

Among the myths covered are:

There are a total of 25 myths dealt with. Some of them are about the role of Islam in the growth of science, and some of them are about the role of the Catholic church.

So did Galileo go to jail? Not quite. He was housed with the prosecutor, but he wasn’t in a dungeon, and his arrest was quite comfortable.

Did the medieval Christians believe the earth was flat? Nope, that’s a myth propagated by Washington Irving.

The first I ever heard of the anesthesia ban was in a movie from 1940, Thunder Rock. It’s a good movie, and good example of war propaganda, but bad history.

Did Einstein believe in a personal God? Here the trick lies in the qualifying adjective personal. The short answer is no. A medium length answer is that he believed in an impersonal God whom he described as “the god of Spinosa.” For a long answer read the book.

The book’s authors are well known scientists and historians, and the tone is less polemical than some that you’ll find on the topic. The writing is usually readable, and fairly entertaining. It’s worth the money.

Next up is William James, Psychology: The Short Course.