Alphabestiary G — Galileo Galilei

The story of Galileo isn’t what I thought it was. It usually gets written about as if the enlightened astronomer were persecuted for being right about the sun, earth and planets, while the Catholic Church was the Evil Empire mired in reactionary ignorance. 

But we often get history wrong — or at least mixed up. I’ve spent a month or so looking into the Galileo case and it turns out to be rather different from the common understanding. Some of it, of course, we get right. 

Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei was born in Pisa (then part of the Duchy of Florence), Italy, on February 15, 1564, in the same year as Shakespeare and on same day that Michelangelo died.  He was the first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei, a lutenist, composer, and music theorist, and Giulia Ammannati, who had married in 1562. 

He was a smart kid, went to school, did well, went to university. 

By 1580, he was studying medicine at the University of Pisa where he had his first scientific insight. While attending a lecture, which seems to have bored the young man, his attention wandered and he noticed that a chandelier, swaying back and forth in a breeze, would swing wider or lesser depending on the force of the wind. More importantly, he timed the swinging with his pulse and to his surprise, whether the chandelier swung wide or narrow, the rhythm didn’t vary: A long swing took exactly the same time as a short swing.

At home, he made an experiment with a pair of identical pendulums and set them in motion, one in a wide sweep and the other in a short one and discovered that they remained in synch. 

Galileo was born at a propitious time. It was the beginning of the Age of Reason, begun in the previous century when the Aristotelian explanations for the natural world had begun to come into question and a range of scientists, such as Francis Bacon, urged that we search for truth empirically. 

It was a special age in Italy, which produced not only Galileo, but the philosophy of Giordano Bruno; the sculpture of Bernini; the music of Monteverdi; the poetry of Torquato Tasso and reams of painters. 

With the need to make a living, he became an inventor to subsidize his small income as a teacher. In 1586, he invented a hydrostatic balance to measure the relative weights of metals in an alloy, and wrote an essay about the center of gravity in solid bodies. He later developed the thermoscope, an early version of the thermometer. 

Later, as chair of mathematics at Pisa, he affirmed the indestructibility of matter, formulated the principles of the lever and the pulley, showed the speed of freely falling bodies increases at a uniform rate, experimented with inclined planes, argued that an object rolling down one plane would rise on a similar plane to a height equal to its fall, outside of friction and concluded the law of inertia  — Newton’s first law of motion — that a moving body will continue indefinitely in the same line and rate of motion unless interfered with by some external force. He was on a roll. He proved that a projectile propelled in a horizontal direction would fall to the earth in a parabolic curve. He reduced musical tones to wave lengths of air, and showed that the pitch of  note depends upon the number of vibrations made by a struck string in a given time.

And he posited that only those properties of matter belonging to mathematics could be objective, and all other properties sounds, tastes, odors, colors and so on “reside only in consciousness; if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”

There is little question that Galileo was a genius. And he was recognized as one even then. He was someone on the same exulted level as Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. 

And all that was before what he was later most famous for: his astronomy. He didn’t invent the telescope, but he improved it in 1609 (not initially for studying the heavens, but for commercial use on merchant ships). And when he turned its glass eye on the stars, he discovered startling things. And that’s when his troubles began. 

In the usual version of the story, Galileo came to realize that Copernicus had been right. Centuries of belief that the Earth was the center of the universe and the sun and planets revolved around the Earth was turned around and Copernicus put the sun in the center and demoted the Earth to a mere planet, like all the others, spinning around the central sun. 

The church — and pretty much everyone (although the church pretty much was everyone) — had assumed the obvious: The earth didn’t move under their feet and the sun rose each day in the east and set in the west “and hastens to the place where it arose,” as Ecclesiastes had it in the Bible. It was not at all clear that Copernicus got it right. After all, Aristotle was the smartest man who ever lived, and Aristotle taught the sun spun around the earth. Who can argue with the smartest man who ever lived? 

Galileo’s record of Jupiter’s moons in orbit

When Galileo was 45 and playing with his new telescope, he discovered the four large moons of Jupiter. “These new bodies, moved around another very great star, in the same way as Mercury and Venus, and peradventure the other known planets, move around the sun.”

That and other things proved to Galileo what he had long believed, that Copernicus had it right: The earth revolved around the sun, along with the other planets. Other bits of evidence began to turn up. 

Critics of Copernicus had argued that if Venus revolved around the sun, it should show phases like the moon. Then, in 1610, Galileo’s telescope revealed such phases. Later, he discovered the rings of Saturn. In 1611, he he showed the existence of sunspots and argued they proved the sun rotates. 

Galileo recognized that his opinion varied from church doctrine and knew he needed support from powerful people if he was going to stay out of hot water. He sought the patronage of the powerful Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He moved to Florence and cleverly named the four moons of Jupiter the Sidera Medicea, after Cosimo’s family name, Medici. There he published his astronomical findings in a book he dedicated to Cosimo called the Sidereus nuncius, or “The Starry Messenger.” So far, so good. 

Galileo was also friends with several Vatican bigwigs. And this is where the familiar story starts to fray. These powerful men of the cloth were among the brightest and most educated and forward looking of their age. They were not knuckle-dragging troglodytes attempting to destroy the honest astronomer. In fact, they gave him every opportunity to teach his ideas — as long as he didn’t insist he was right and everyone else was wrong. 

And the Church was fine with him presenting his case as just that, an alternative interpretation of the facts. Just not OK with him saying it was the absolute truth. He could explain the Copernican theory, since it made celestial navigation easier to compute. And, they said, if ever he could provide actual proof of heliocentrism, then they would be forced to reinterpret the biblical citations. As Cardinal Bellarmine put it, he had asked only that until proof was at hand, astronomers refrain from making strong truth claims and present their results merely hypothetically.

In effect, the Church was willing to bend over backwards to tolerate the haughty astronomer. 

We forget that Galileo had no proof for his ideas. He had inferences and metaphors. The fact that he got it essentially right and the Church was wrong was not provable at the time. Galileo had an alternative way of understanding the facts and observations. Proof of the earth’s rotation, for instance, wasn’t available until 1851 and Leon Foucault’s pendulum experiment. So, Galileo was defending a theory that had no direct evidence. We know now he was right; but he had only the weight of his belief. It was belief vs. belief at the time, not simply truth vs. superstition.

We forget also that Galileo ran into trouble with the Church not in one big trial, but twice, and for different reasons. 

The first, in 1615, when he was 51, and a group of clergy brought before the Inquisition charges against the astronomer. The charge brought was not that he was teaching heliocentrism, but rather that in defending it, he was re-interpreting several verses from scripture. 

Pages from Galileo’s notes

Yes, Galileo originally did not argue with the church over scientific principles, but rather the fact that he attempted to prove that his science did not conflict with the Bible. The Council of Trent in 1563 had forbidden individual interpretations of scripture, saying that “no one relying on his own judgement shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which the holy mother Church… has held or holds.” And Galileo was attempting just that. It struck the Inquisition as “dangerously close to Protestantism.”

The Inquisition was a subset of those in the Vatican, and made up of the more reactionary elements. When you were denounced to the Inquisition, you had to defend yourself and Galileo did that, again but disputing the meaning of passages in the Bible. This was not a good tactic with these priests. It was exactly what he was being charged with. 

He could have been imprisoned or even executed for his “crime,” but the Inquisition showed deference to his eminence and reputation and merely forbid him from teaching or writing about the Copernican system. The judgement in February, 1616, Galileo was ordered “to abandon completely … the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the Earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”

By 1623, Galileo’s friend and supporter, Cardinal Maffeo Barbarini, had been elected as Pope Urban VIII and Galileo apparently felt the pressure was off and decided it would be OK to write again about heliocentrism. Barberini had opposed the admonition of Galileo in 1616, and later, as pope, had given permission to Galileo to write a book presenting arguments for and against the Copernican system. Galileo’s resulting book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was published in 1632, with formal authorization from the Inquisition and papal permission. But then, they read the book. 

It was a conversation among three supposed points of view, one in favor of Copernicus, one against it, and a third as disinterested third party to ask questions of the other two. Unfortunately and immoderately, Galileo named the anti-Copernican Simplicio, or “Dunce,” and put into his mouth several ideas and phrases that had previously been uttered by Urban. Not a good idea to insult your primary supporter. 

Worse, Urban was facing backlash as pope from more reactionary elements, and so the pope felt political pressure not to forgive his erstwhile friend. The pope had bigger fish to fry and Galileo was a minor irritation in the big picture. 

Galileo had a long history of arrogance and Galileo’s very personality made things much worse for him than they needed to be. He was a cussed pig-headed man who unnecessarily insulted the powerful people who had the power over his fate.

He wrote that “philosophy had “gone to sleep in the lap of Aristotle.” In the margin of a book by Jesuit Antonio Rocco defending the Ptolemaic astronomy, Galileo wrote “Ignoramus, elephant, fool dunce … eunuch.”

 He wrote a letter to Johannes Kepler in 1596 and said in it that he feared being “ridiculed and condemned by countless people (for very great is the number of the stupid.”) 

All of may have been true, but it was surely impolitic of Galileo to point it out when they had power of life and death over him. 

One of his supporters, Jesuit Father Grassi, whom Galileo had once made fun of, wrote, “Many resented his arrogant tone, his presumption for speaking on theological matters, and for crossing over from the world of mathematical astronomy into the world of natural philosophy.” And later, “I have always had more love for him than he has for me. And last year at Rome [during the trial] when I was requested to give my opinion on his book on the motion of the earth, I took the utmost care to allay minds harshly disposed toward him and to render them open to conviction of the strength of his arguments, so much so, indeed, that certain people who supposed me to have been offended by Galileo . . . marveled at my solicitude. But he has ruined himself by being so much in love with his own genius, and by having no respect for others. One should not wonder that everybody conspires to damn him.”

And they did. In 1633, Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy “for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the center of the world” against the 1616 condemnation, since “it was decided at the Holy Congregation … on 25 Feb 1616 that … the Holy Office would give you an injunction to abandon this doctrine, not to teach it to others, not to defend it, and not to treat of it; and that if you did not acquiesce in this injunction, you should be imprisoned.”

He was interrogated and, according to the directives of the Inquisition to be “shown the instruments of torture” to encourage his acquiescence. Galileo was found “vehemently suspected of heresy,” namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse, and detest” those opinions.

He was sentenced to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life, and his books were banned, including any new works he might write. (His books remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until it was formally removed in 1835.) 

Galileo’s drawing of the moon

While under house arrest, he managed to surreptitiously write a new book, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences, which was published in 1638 in Holland, outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. The book concerns mechanics and physics, not astronomy. 

The astronomer was 69 when he was sentenced. His health declined, and five years later, in 1638, he went blind. He died in 1642 at the age of 77. 

There is a common story that as Galileo was led away after his condemnation for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, he muttered under his breath, “E pur si muove” — “And yet, it moves.” Unfortunately, he likely never said it. The earliest attestation for the quote comes from 1837, more than 200 years later. 


E pur si muove

—Galileo Galilei, 1633 (maybe)


Yogi Berra, source of many notable quotes referred to as “Yogi-isms,” (“When you get to the fork in the road, take it” or “It gets late early out here”) also said, “I never said all the things I said.” 

The world is full of famous quotes, and it is appalling how many of them never happened. Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” Gandhi never said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And Sigmund Freud never said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” 

These misquotes come in several varieties. A lot of historical ones come from later rewritings of less succinct utterances. Some are just wishful thinkings — wouldn’t it have been great if Galileo actually did say, “Yet it still moves.” But it is most likely he never did. 

Queen Victoria never said, “We are not amused.” In reality, according to those who knew her, she was quite easily amused. 

Niccolo Machiavelli never wrote, “The ends justify the means.” He may have meant that, but the closest thing he actually wrote says, “One must consider the final result.” Not quite so ringing a quote. 

George Bernard Shaw never said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” The closest actually comes from Oscar Wilde, who wrote in The Canterville Ghost, “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”

In their book, They Never Said It : A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions, authors Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George write: “There have always been people who liked to liven up what they were saying with appropriate statements from the writings of others. This was true even in ancient times; Plato used quotations freely, and Cicero’s letters are full of quotations. Today, however, quotations tend to be polemical rather than decorative. People use them to prove points rather than to provide pleasure. … What has been called ‘quotemanship’ (or ‘quotesmanship’) — the use and abuse of quotations for partisan purposes — has during the past few decades become a highly refined art in this country.”

The internet is awash with meme-quotes, almost always attributed to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein or Mohandas Gandhi. But Mark Twain, who said more quotable things than anyone after Shakespeare, never commented on Microsoft Word, despite the quote put in his mouth on FaceBook. 

These things come in at least three forms. The first and easiest are the misquotations — close but no cigar. 

Leo Durocher never said, “Nice guys finish last.” He did say, “Nice guys finish seventh in the National League.” Near miss. 

Financier J.P. Morgan never said, “If you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it.” He actually said, “You have no right to own a yacht if you ask that question.”

Often these are notable sentiments originally expressed in less memorable language and later cleaned up, rewritten and made pithier. 

The second source of bad quotations come from crossed, or misappropriation. Sometimes a nobody says something clever and we would pay more attention if we pretend Mark Twain said it. Or Shakespeare. 

Winston Churchill did not say, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they tried everything else.”  In reality, it was said by Frederick Edwin Smith, First Earl of Birkenhead, a British Conservative politician. But I doubt you’ve ever heard of him. 

Marilyn Monroe is often quoted for saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” but it wasn’t her; it was Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who was amused by its spread. “It was a weird escape into popular culture. I got constant e-mails about it, and I thought it was humorous.” 

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” is usually put in the mouth of P.T. Barnum, but the real quote, “There’s a sucker born every minute, but none of them ever die” actually came from rival circus owner Adam Forepaugh. And even he probably stole it from famous con-man Joseph (“Paper Collar Joe”) Bessimer. And it likely predates even him. In 1930, novelist John Dos Passos attributed it to Mark Twain, one in a long line of quotes put in the mouth of Twain, who “never said all the things I said.” 

The need to find a famous name to give weight to a pithy saying is enormous. It is on one hand a vestige of the Medieval “argument from authority.” If you have a recognized celebrity say it, it must be true. 

And so, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” is all over the internet attributed to the incontestable moral authority of Nelson Mandela, but was really said by New Age flake and air-headed inspirational speaker Marianne Williamson. 

“Success is not final, Failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts” shows up as Winston Churchill, but really owes to football coach Don Shula.

And speaking of football coaches, the most famous football quote of all times — “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” wasn’t coined by  Vince Lombardi (he did repeat it, but did not originate it.) It was first said by UCLA coach Red Sanders, who also said about football, “It’s not a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that!”

The final group are those that are completely bogus. At least the source has never been identified. They are usually ascribed to one of the usual suspects, but those suspects never said or wrote the quote. And so: 

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Not said by, but given to Mark Twain, or Jack Benny, or Muhammad Ali. 

“Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” Einstein never said it.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Not found anywhere in the writing of Edmund Burke. 

Mark Twain never said: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Nor: “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.” Nor: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” And he did not say, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” That last didn’t occur anywhere until 1970, long after Twain’s demise. (And he never said, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”) 

Einstein never said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And neither did he say: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” And the supposed quote, “Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart” doesn’t appear anywhere until 1999, when it surfaced online. 

On the internet, you can make anything up and put someone’s name under it, and within a week, you’ll see it reposted a hundred times — and often with some other name given as its author. It’s a great big mix ’n’ match. 

There’s an old saying in journalism. “If you mother says she loves you, check it out.” It has been credited to Chicago editor Arnold A Dornfield. But an enterprising reporter checked it out and discovered it was really said by another Chicago editor, Edward H. Eulenberg, and what he actually said was, “If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it.” Has a bit more oomph. 

And so, to quote Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Trust but verify.” 

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