Great, if not greatest, thinker: Galileo

Galileo

Four hundred years ago exactly, Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope at the moon and began, with his wonderfully open mind, writing down what he saw. Other people had done this before him. So why include Galileo in my pantheon of the greatest thinkers ever?

Two reasons:

  1. He made us understand that our universe is much bigger than we could imagine.
  2. He, in his human and fallible way, stood up for truth against superstition, ignorance and fear, otherwise known as… but I get ahead of myself.

I) The universe is bigger than we can imagine

It’s one of those many cases in science, and in all thought (think: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), when a great contribution came from several people building on the work of one another. This is wonderful. We place far too much emphasis on the solitary genius.

In Galileo’s case, he built on the prior work of, among others,

  1. Copernicus,
  2. Tycho Brahe, and
  3. Johannes Kepler,

in the process proving wrong the views of Aristotle and everybody else that the sun (and everything else) moved around the earth.

Copernicus

Copernicus

Copernicus was the first to realize that the earth in fact moved around the sun, which must count as one of the most revolutionary (pun intended) advances in our understanding of ourselves and our world. But Copernicus assumed (and why not?) that the orbit was a circle.

Tycho Brahe took things an important step further not so much by thinking as by measuring: the motion of Mars, in particular. He created data, in other words.

Kepler

Kepler

Kepler, who was Brahe’s assistant, then looked at those data and realized that our orbit, and those of the other planets, could not be circular but had to be elliptical. (A colleague of mine wrote a good and quick summary of all this.)

And Galileo? He filled in a lot of the blanks with his telescope.

  • He saw the moons of Jupiter, realizing that they were orbiting another body besides the earth and the sun, which was a shocker.
  • He saw that Venus was, like earth, orbiting the sun.
  • He saw that the sun was not a prefect orb.
  • He saw that the Milky Way contained uncountable stars just like our own sun.

For Homo Sapiens, who was still coming to terms with the fact that the earth was round, all this was almost too much to bear. Our universe was vastly, unimaginably, bigger than the Bible had told us. How would we react to that news?

II) Those who seek and are open to truth will have enemies

This brings us to the church, or shall we say “religion” generally. The church hated Galileo and everything he said and stood for. He questioned what they thought they “knew”, which unsettled them, scared them, threatened them. But they had power. With Nietzschean ressentiment, they attacked him.

You can make anybody recant, and Galileo did. Sort of. In any case, he was declared a heretic and sentenced to house arrest for his remaining life.

In one of my all-time favorite ironies, the Catholic Church, having condemned him, decided–359 years later, in 1992, two years before I sent my first email!–that Galileo was in fact right. How? A committee had discovered this. Good job, guys.

And so, Galileo is still with us, inspiring many. As he discovered that our universe was incomprehensibly big, we are discovering, as another colleague of mine, Geoff Carr, puts it, that

the object that people call the universe, vast though it is, may be just one of an indefinite number of similar structures … that inhabit what is referred to, for want of a better term, as the multiverse.

And as Galileo had to confront the the mobs of ignorance, fear and superstition, so do we today. Here, remind yourself with this casual comment by an Arizona state senator (!), Sylvia Allen, Republican, that the earth is 6,000 years old:

Oh, and what about Aristotle? He was the one proved wrong, you recall. That’s OK, as I have argued. You can be wrong sometimes and still be a great thinker, provided you were genuinely looking for the truth.

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27 thoughts on “Great, if not greatest, thinker: Galileo

  1. Despite Copernicus, Galileo and the boys, twenty percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth. And of those Americans (80%) who do believe the earth revolves around the sun, only forty-seven percent believe this happens once a year.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1996/05/24/MN67867.DTL

    Thus, most Americans either don’t believe that the earth goes round the sun, or that earth goes round the sun once a year.

    So, who’s right: Copernicus, Galileo and the boys; or the American people?

  2. In fact, the earth revolves around me. If you don’t believe me, just ask me.

    My gut reaction to the honorable Senator’s video was, “what is up with your hair?” I’m so shallow. You want evidence of prehistoric? You want ‘anti-intelligent’ design? Look no further than Mr. C.

    In other matters, who wrote the obituary for Benson in this week’s Economist? To be named after a cigarette and get your obit in the Economist; that’s bottom feeding for you.

  3. That is the problem with faith. Once you are willing to swap “I believe” for “I think” you are on the slippery slope that includes: 6000 year old planet earth, sons of god rising from the dead and divine instructions to crash your plane into a skyscraper.

    • Amen (as it were).

      Believe: The Germanic root is related to Dutch geloven and German glauben, but I heard that the ultimate root is German lieben, love. Ie, believing is what you’d “love to know”. That which passion makes you yearn to be true.

  4. Andreas, first lemme tell this: your blog is the BEST blog I’ve read in years.

    Crisp, clear, and most important: respect for the intellectual giants, on whose shoulders we stand: Aristotle, Darwin, Copernicus, Galileo…and many more.

    Btw, do you feel Leonardo DaVinci / Edison/ Tesla are great “thinkers” or great “innovators”?

    • Why, thanks! Blushing.

      Leonardo is one of my heroes. I think of him as a–the–Renaissance Man, but primarily an artist.

      Edison and Tesla: Inventors, I would say, No? Tesla is the more interesting of the two. I remember being in a group discussion with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google guys, once, and those two are fascinated by Tesla’s life–the irony of a genius being unable to succeed with his inventions. (They were determined that Google would avoid that fate, of course)

      What is your view?

    • Maybe not Edison, but I am still trying to think about ‘discoverers’ who have completely changed the course of life: like Tesla’s idea of Alternating Currents for power distribution changed the industrial world… or the DNA discovery by Watson&Crick.

      The idea of DNA as the fundamental “life” unit through which biological information is transferred, was as revolutionary a thought in 1950s as Darwin’s or Galileo’s was in their age. There are probably many more in this category like the great scientists/discoverers of 19th&20th century: Lister, Pasteur, Fleming, Koch, Einstein and so on.

      These discoverers caused mankind to progress exponentially in the last 200 years compared to the last 20000 years before that! Life in 2000 BC was not much different from 500 AD despite hundreds of years of continuous domesticated life. But look at 1970 vs even 1700 AD. What happened these 200 odd years?

      Eventually, everyone is a discoverer of a thought/idea existing in the natural world.

  5. “You can be wrong sometimes and still be a great thinker, provided you were genuinely looking for the truth.”

    Well-put.

    Excellent, thought-provoking article. Thank you for breaking down this often-overlooked topic of the world’s greatest thinkers. Congratulations on being featured!

  6. “He, in his human and fallible way, stood up for truth against superstition, ignorance and fear, otherwise known as… but I get ahead of myself.”

    You mean the American public?!?

  7. I was almost liking this post until the very end when you had to turn it political. You completely ruined it by quoting a politician, and then in one of the comments you mention that you have problems liking democracy. Start your own island then and force everyone to believe your version of the truth.

    • As much as I’d love to have my own island, there is no danger of that. Nor would I force anybody to believe my version of the truth, because that would be a very boring island!

      If you hang around the Hannibal Blog a bit more, aconcernedstranger, you’ll see that we actually thrive on diversity of views here. that’s the whole point. Socratic dialectic with good intentions and humor, you might say. 😉

      Having said that, I’d like to challenge one thing you said: “your version of the truth”.

      Are you saying that the hogwash which that Arizona senator spouts in the video–ie, that the earth is 6,000 years old–is a “version” of the “truth”? Ie, that I should give it equal weight with other “versions”, even though those versions benefit from evidence whereas the 6,000-year one does not?

      If you think that Galileo’s legacy does NOT touch on politics and religion, you have not been paying enough attention.

      Anyway, hang around on this island and disagree more. We’ll have fun.

  8. I didn’t even have to read your whole article to know you are full of shit. This is not about Galileo at all, it’s about what you want Galileo to be. You are using a person to symbolize a point to you. That doesn’t make him a great thinker, it just makes him a tool for you to use to express your personal opinions and so sort of authority to do it with.

    • Mike, after reading this article, as free-mindedly as possible I would hope, that’s the only way you can conclude what was just published? That you know the author is full of shit? Secondly, haven’t facts always been tools used to support an opinion? I believe it is called debating. Jeez!

    • Well, mike, you seem to be a casual visitor who is still groping for the proper way to express himself on the Hannibal Blog. If you’re still here, try:
      – humor
      – argument
      – logic
      – reading the whole article

      If not, best of luck.

  9. “…when we transcend being human.” hehehe

    Should we not make the baseline before we think of going ahead?

    Many people – you may include my person – still seem to struggle with the atavistic rudiments of our inheritance. We seem to barely scratch the surface of what it could mean to be human. As I see it, the animal, though rational at times, is still mostly irrational.

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