Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Common Knowledge

According to The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Italian astronomer Galileo (Galilei), born in Pisa (1564). He devised a simple open-air thermometer (1607), but his greatest breakthrough was to build an improved refracting telescope (1609), with which he clearly confirmed the view of Copernicus, who insisted Aristotle was wrong, the Earth was not the center of things; the Sun was. Galileo's books were banned; he was summoned to Rome, to be tried for heresy. In 1633 he was convicted, sentenced to house arrest for life, and his books were ordered burned. He was forced either to renounce all his Copernican beliefs or be tortured on the rack. While signing his declaration that the earth was stationary, he muttered, "And yet... it moves." Confined to his home, he continued to study physics and astronomy, until, in his seventies, he grew completely blind.

Galileo is a hero of mine, because he saw no contradiction between scientific advance and faith in God, and because he is one of the fathers of empirical physics. Of equal importance to us as writers is the way he published his arguments in favor of the Copernican view of the solar system, which were radical for his time in two ways: First, they were written in Italian, not Latin, which made them accessible to many more people (not just scholars). Second, they were written as dialogues, in which the competing worldview was presented respectfully (though clearly discredited). I wish there were more people today willing to package their learnings this carefully for consumption.

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