Revelations about Galileo, Bruno, and aliens

Jan 17, 2011 By Leslie Mullen
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition. Painted by Cristiano Banti in 1857.

The Catholic Church and scientists have a history of clashing, but according to Vatican astronomers, some of the stories of Church persecution are distortions of the truth – more gossip than Gospel.

One of the most famous examples of the clash between religion and science is the trial of Galileo Galilei. Galileo supported Copernicus’ view that the Earth orbited the Sun, a “heliocentric” theory which the Church declared contrary to Scripture. Galileo was warned to abandon his support for this theory and instead embrace the traditional “geocentric” notion that the Earth was an unmovable point around which the universe revolved.

Instead, in 1632 Galileo published “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” The book was structured as a conversation between Salviati, a heliocentric philosopher, Simplicio, a geocentric philosopher, and Sagredo, a neutral layman. Pope Urban VIII had actually given Galileo permission to write the book so long as he didn’t promote one viewpoint over the other. However, Salviati forcefully argued Galileo’s beliefs, while Simplicio was often ridiculed as a fool.

An often-repeated view about the furor which followed the publication of Galileo’s book is that the Pope was insulted by having his words expressed by Simplicio. Not only was the character made to look ridiculous, but the name itself likely was a double entendre for “simple-minded” (simplice in Italian). However, astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno disputes this analysis.

Although it looks like day, this image was taken at night. Those wondrous orange streaks are thin clouds illuminated by the Moon as they quickly streaked toward the distant horizon. This time-lapsed image sequence, taken at the site of a deserted church in Sounio, Greece, shows star trails circling around Polaris (the north star). Credit: Chris Kotsiopoulos in 1857

“First, "Simplicio" was a well-established name in philosophical discourses, not something invented by Galileo, to represent a person who was able to see through the fog generated by the more clever and learned philosophers who invent elaborate theories and lose sight of simple obvious truths, like the innocent child who can recognize that the emperor has no clothes,” says Consolmagno. “In this context, its use could be seen as a compliment. Second, this kind of punning is quite common in English but my impression is that it is not really done all that much, or in the same way, in Italian; I do not know if anyone at that time and place would have interpreted it the way we English speakers do. And finally, the book was originally approved by the Pope's censors before being published; if he were going to be insulted by the name, he'd have noticed it long before it was ever printed.”

Still, the political fallout eventually led the Church to withdraw its permission to publish the book. Galileo faced a specially-convened panel of ten judges, who found him guilty of suspicion of heresy. By abjuring – saying that he never believed in the heliocentric point of view expressed in the book – Galileo’s sentence was reduced to house arrest.

“He served (his sentence) first as the honored guest of the bishop of Siena before returning to his own villa, where he lived for another decade, had a regular string of visitors, and wrote another book,” says Consolmagno. “I don't want to whitewash the mistakes the Church made in the Galileo affair, but…it certainly was not a simple knee-jerk reaction against science.”

Consolmagno says that to truly understand what happened, we need to take into account the philosophical thinking of the time and the events that were taking place both within the Church and in the larger society. This context can be glimpsed in the original documents from the trial, which have been translated into English in various publications, such as Finocchiaro's “The Galileo Affair.”

A cosmic stained glass window, in the lobby of the Santa Maria degli Angelo. This church in Rome also features a meridian line and sundial that were added in 1703. Credit: Herlihym

“They got Galileo on a technicality, and he was guilty of that technicality; but why they decided to go after him, in that way, at that time, is an open question,” says Consolmagno. “We can see today that he should never have been brought to trial in the first place.”

By 1992, Pope John Paul II issued a declaration acknowledging errors in Galileo’s trial. No such apologetic statement has been made for Giordano Bruno, whom the Church burned at the stake in 1600.

Bruno not only supported the heliocentric view, he also claimed there are multiple worlds beyond Earth, each orbiting their own sun. The Vatican astronomers say Bruno’s death sentence was not due to him advancing these notions.

“The old joke is that if he was burned for anything back then, it was for plagerism,” says Consolmagno. “Nicholas of Cusa published those same ideas 200 years earlier, and he was a Cardinal.”

Nicholas of Cusa’s book, “On Learned Ignorance,” in which he discussed the possibility of multiple worlds, was published in 1440. He also wrote that aliens could exist on the Moon and the Sun.

“He was made a Cardinal in 1448, so it’s quite obvious that it didn’t damage his career,” notes Consolmagno’s colleague, Vatican astronomer Father Paul Pavel Gabor.

Consolmagno says the most probable reason for the Church’s enmity was that Bruno denied the divinity of Christ, as well as some other fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

“I think the real problem with Bruno was he was accused of being an English spy,” adds Gabor. He says that Bruno was imprisoned in various places throughout Europe before landing in jail in Venice, which then led to his death in Rome. Gabor says that the file on last 7 years of his trial is gone, because Napoleon looted the Vatican for paper.

“Everybody who keeps writing about it as if they knew what happened is actually just fantasizing,” says Gabor.

Galileo explaining lunar topography to two cardinals. Painting by Jean Leon Huens in 1857.

Both Consolmagno and Gabor stress that the idea of aliens and multiple worlds is not a new idea for the Church, and doesn’t challenge or threaten the central beliefs of their religion. The Vatican even sponsored an astrobiology workshop in 2009. According to Consolmagno, the Church did so in order to create a forum for top in the field to have a conversation.

“It was NOT the way it was reported on CNN, where the was worried about aliens,” he says.

They say there was no religious discussion during this workshop; instead the focus was purely on the science of astrobiology. The philosophical cross-over between religion and science was only discussed informally, during coffee breaks and other social gatherings.

A bronze statue of Giordano Bruno stands in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, where he was executed in 1600. Credit: Jastrow in 1857

Philosophers have been grappling with the implications of alien life for hundreds of years, if not longer. But until aliens are found, says Consolmagno, these issues will remain in the realm of science fiction instead of religion or science.

“I think that’s a very important role that science fiction has to play, because at this point we’re just playing with ideas,” says Consolmagno. “We’re just exploring the space where the ideas could be. We don’t know – we don’t have the answers. That’s why it’s so much fun!”

Explore further: History books spark latest Texas classroom battle

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Reverence for the heavens

Jan 14, 2011

For some, the contemplation of the cosmos is a religious experience. Vatican astronomers say this can lead to profound insights about ourselves and the nature of the universe.

Modern society made up of all types

Nov 04, 2010

Modern society has an intense interest in classifying people into ‘types’, according to a University of Melbourne Cultural Historian, leading to potentially catastrophic life-changing outcomes for those typed – ...

Recommended for you

History books spark latest Texas classroom battle

Sep 16, 2014

As Texas mulls new history textbooks for its 5-plus million public school students, some academics are decrying lessons they say exaggerate the influence of Christian values on America's Founding Fathers.

Flatow, 'Science Friday' settle claims over grant

Sep 16, 2014

Federal prosecutors say radio host Ira Flatow and his "Science Friday" show that airs on many National Public Radio stations have settled civil claims that they misused money from a nearly $1 million federal ...

User comments : 18

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Glyndwr
5 / 5 (4) Jan 17, 2011
O those cheeky cardinals burning Bruno at the stake for plagarism......and they thought the celts et al. were the barbarians. sheesh
rgwalther
2 / 5 (4) Jan 17, 2011
The cardinals really only meant to 'scorch' old Bruno. Like a 'Frat' hazing gotten out of control.
Talk about histerical! The Catholic Church complaining about 'distortions of the truth' over the church's actions - by others!
The greatest thing today about the Cat-lics and the I-slams lies in the fact that it doesn't really seem to matter whether you have a single Primate in charge or frenzied troops of baboons, each with a fuzzy leader. The end result remains institutionalized madness. I admit that the old college of Cardinals has had to cut back on mass murdering over the last couple of hundred years, but the current, kill crazy Imans of Muham-Mad(only a fraction of the total) may have to be taught a permanent lesson. I don't think that you can go to the promised land after being slimed by an infidel's robot.
Peace & Honor! I hope!
Paljor
4 / 5 (3) Jan 17, 2011
Someone explain to me why the church doesn't worry over the (possible) existance of other life forms on other worlds??!!??
Simonsez
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 17, 2011
@ Paljor
Someone explain to me why the church doesn't worry over the (possible) existance of other life forms on other worlds??!!??

For the same reasons that Average Joe doesn't worry about the possible existence of life forms on other worlds; we have yet to find conclusive evidence of it, or that it is hostile to us.
Quantum_Conundrum
3 / 5 (6) Jan 17, 2011
Someone explain to me why the church doesn't worry over the (possible) existance of other life forms on other worlds??!!??


How about the fact that it would in no way contradict the Bible, in which we see "angels" descend from heaven and ascend, and so on.

It doesn't contradict the Bible. Moreover, the Bible even states that there are "beings" from "heaven" and mentions other "worlds"(See Hebrews 1:2 and 11:3).
Caliban
3 / 5 (6) Jan 17, 2011
Someone explain to me why the church doesn't worry over the (possible) existance of other life forms on other worlds??!!??


How about the fact that it would in no way contradict the Bible, in which we see "angels" descend from heaven and ascend, and so on.

It doesn't contradict the Bible. Moreover, the Bible even states that there are "beings" from "heaven" and mentions other "worlds"(See Hebrews 1:2 and 11:3).


An entirely meaningless assertion, in relation to the question.

The Sky is above us. So what?

This monomania of yours is becoming a clinical obsession. You need meds -now!
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.1 / 5 (14) Jan 17, 2011
How about the fact that it would in no way contradict the Bible, in which we see "angels" descend from heaven and ascend, and so on
Huh. So god gives aliens special powers and sends them to earth to do his bidding? It would kind of look like aliens are a little closer to god than we are?

Of course I suppose your 'interpretation' includes the idea that demons are also aliens, and they are somewhat less pleasing to god than we are. But they do seem to have powers which we do not, and we are routinely helpless to resist them; unless we are fortified with the Holy Force.

But- perhaps these categories are not absolute. Perhaps god enlists outstanding humans, gives them wings, and sends them to aldebaran to recruit? Maybe? And fallen angels he sends to Mercury?

-This is all speculation of course, like the tripe you come up with.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (12) Jan 17, 2011
Jeez and it looks like god will send aliens to destroy the earth- it's in revelations. 'Earth Destroyed by Holy Alien Invaders'.

'If it bleeds we can kill it.' -schwartzenegger

Perhaps if we fight back, we can win Armageddon! All right! I'm not so depressed anymore. Who would win- a Horseman with 20 heads or Wil smith in a Hornet? Or a JSF? If alien angels come here, personally I'm gonna PUKE in their FACE. Goddam right.
dtxx
2.8 / 5 (9) Jan 17, 2011
Someone explain to me why the church doesn't worry over the (possible) existance of other life forms on other worlds??!!??


How about the fact that it would in no way contradict the Bible, in which we see "angels" descend from heaven and ascend, and so on.

It doesn't contradict the Bible. Moreover, the Bible even states that there are "beings" from "heaven" and mentions other "worlds"(See Hebrews 1:2 and 11:3).


After your recent posts, I have two questions:

1) How many guns do you own?
2) When was your last mental health checkup?

Please, make fools of us all, and go get checked out by a professional. If you're cleared you can come back here and laugh at all of us.

Until then, my new nickname for you is Jared Loughner Jr.
Jimee
4 / 5 (4) Jan 18, 2011
Does apologetic whitewash fit the article?
Bog_Mire
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2011
GG was actually given permission to pursue his Copernican beliefs by Urban - providing he kept it philosophical. Urban spat the chewy when under siege by anti-Catholic Christians, he was forced to reign in his old pal.
Paljor
not rated yet Jan 18, 2011
Dtxx i have a guestion.

were you talking about me or quantum condrem on who is crazy?
Ricochet
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2011
So god gives aliens special powers and sends them to earth to do his bidding? It would kind of look like aliens are a little closer to god than we are?


And what's to say what we call "God" isn't just another alien? Maybe a prime alien being that commands the other aliens? And what's to say they're aliens at all? Maybe they started out here on Earth before we did? Perhaps we are a species that was developed as a scientific test and the aliens are the scientists conducting said experiment, and this God person is their boss?

The point I'm trying to make is there's way too much that we just don't know, and can't find out, either by our ignorance and lack of skills/knowledge/technology, or by design... In other words, we don't know much of anything. We have ideas. Ideas that have caused wars and general stupidity, and will either bless or doom us depending on what we do with them, or to each other on their behalf.

We think, therefore we are.
Terrible_Bohr
4.3 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2011
It would be silly to kill someone for belief in life on other worlds. What we have to understand is that they only murdered Bruno for his failure to believe in their imaginary Jewish carpenter -- that's what makes it all ok.
Ricochet
5 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2011
It would be silly to kill someone for belief in life on other worlds. What we have to understand is that they only murdered Bruno for his failure to believe in their imaginary Jewish carpenter -- that's what makes it all ok.


I thought they saved that for The Spanish Inquisition...
panorama
not rated yet Jan 19, 2011
imaginary Jewish carpenter

What do you mean imaginary? My jesus conversation chair is still in pristine condition. Messiah and savior...pfft whatever...skilled craftsmen, yes indeed.
rgwalther
not rated yet Jan 21, 2011
It would be silly to kill someone for belief in life on other worlds. What we have to understand is that they only murdered Bruno for his failure to believe in their imaginary Jewish carpenter -- that's what makes it all ok.


I thought they saved that for The Spanish Inquisition...


"No one expects the Spanish Inquistion!!"
Ricochet
not rated yet Jan 21, 2011
Wow! It took almost 12 hrs for someone to pick up the quote! We're losing our touch...