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Dr. Mayer's the 'go to' man on subject of Galileo

February  15, 2013

Dr. Thomas Mayer

His research shows story of
scientist vs. church not so clear-cut

Although Galileo Galilei was born 449 years ago today, the debate about his life goes on. Was the Catholic Church out to get the "Father of Modern Science" because he said the Earth moved around the Sun? Or did Galileo seal his own fate because he thought he could dodge, lie to and bamboozle the Inquisition?

Dr. Thomas Mayer of Augustana College is a noted scholar of Galileo and church history of the time. He's written two recent books on the subject and a third is in progress. This makes him a valuable resource to other scholars and writers. The latest of these is columnist Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker in an essay this week, "Moon Man, What Galileo Saw."  

In 1616, the church told Galileo not to defend the sun-centered theory of the universe. In 1632, Galileo violated the order by publishing a book about it. In 1633, the Inquisition forced Galileo to renounce his belief and put him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

History and Hollywood have, understandably, painted the church as the villain of the piece. Dr. Mayer says his research shows the story — and Galileo's trial before the Inquisition — to be quite a bit more complicated than simply religion vs. science.

"The trial has never been put in the proper context of the history of the Roman Inquisition, which is where my research has taken me," Dr. Mayer said. "Galileo's troubles could have had all kinds of other results, including just possibly complete exoneration. Ignoring the trial automatically means ignoring these other possible outcomes."

Among other things, Galileo failed to engage a canon lawyer and tripped himself up by lying during questioning.

"Galileo's trial helped greatly to harden the lines between science and religion," Dr. Mayer said. "The fault lies with Galileo, not the pope or the Inquisition. Galileo took on the pope twice and lost both times... As he always did, the ever impatient Galileo deliberately forced the issue onto a wide stage and thereby martyred himself."

Related reading:

Sloppy Records Cast Galileo's Trial in New Light, LiveScience

The Trial of Galileo, 1612-1633, edited by Thomas F. Mayer, University of Toronto Press, 2013

The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013

Divining Perry's Meaning on Galileo Remark, New York Times