I have been thinking about Galileo recently, because the other day I saw a note in the paper saying that a very important document of his will go on display next year in Rome. Thinking about Galileo got me thinking once again about science, how it all got started, and how controversial it has been, century after century.
The core of the scientific method is its reliance on observation. Science establishes what is true through observing, measuring, constructing models, and testing them against reality. When there is a conflict between what we observe and what we might want to believe or others might prefer that we believed, reality wins.
Science is not dull and desiccated. The process by which science evolves is very human, even rowdy. It’s full of passion and emotion. Anyone who has ever gone to a scientific meeting has seen scientists get into loud and heated debates as they advocate their particular viewpoints. But in the end, measurement, observation, and repeatability are the referees that determine what is true and what is not.
Galileo was one of the true Greats of science. He also is a poster child for what can happen when science and human institutions come into conflict. Faced with death by slow burning for his scientific views of the cosmos, Galileo recanted. You really can’t blame him. He had more life to live and wanted to live it. Regardless, he knew that what he had published about the planets and the sun was true, and that eventually the truth would come out and be recognized by all. And so it was.
This summer’s news reported that the document in which Galileo recanted and to which he affixed his signature, “Galileo Galilei,” will go on display in Rome next year, from February to September, in the Capitoline Museums. It’s a major punctuation point in the history of science, human thought, and freedom.
Galileo is one of my personal heroes. So, as “Penguin One” of an institution that is devoted to doing and sharing and learning about science, I encourage us to pause and pay homage to Galileo Galilei. He deserves our admiration and our gratitude. He did a great deal to birth the modern world we live in.