Sorry, but no, Earth isn't center of the universe

Galileo sought to pacify Church in early exchanges, newly unearthed letter shows

Document, which lay forgotten in Royal Society library for hundreds of years, reveals astronomer tried to soften position on bible-science clash to avoid angering Inquisition

An etching of astronomer Galileo Galilei is seen in an undated photo (AP Photo)
An etching of astronomer Galileo Galilei is seen in an undated photo (AP Photo)

A newly discovered letter written by Galileo Galilei has shed light on the Italian scientist’s famous feud with the Catholic Church, and shows that the 17th century astronomer tried — at least at first — to moderate his views in order to avoid conflict with religious authorities.

Galileo (1564-1642) made the first complete astronomical telescope and used it to gather evidence that the Earth revolved around the sun, adopting the heliocentric model suggested decades earlier by Nicolaus Copernicus. Church teachings at the time had placed Earth at the center of the universe.

The scientist first came to the attention of the Inquisition in Rome after sending a letter to friend Benedetto Castelli in 1613, in which he wrote that biblical texts’ references to the astronomical bodies should not be taken literally, and argued that science should be independent of religious doctrine.

The document was circulated among scholars and other readers and was eventually referred by a friar, Niccolò Lorini, to Rome.

When Galileo learned of this, he wrote to a cleric friend claiming his letter had been altered to misrepresent his views, and asked him to forward another version, which he asserted was the original, to the Inquisition.

However this apparently did little to placate the Church, which warned him to abandon the heliocentric view

Researchers have never known which version of the two letters was true. However, the mystery now appears to have been solved.

According to a report in Nature, a postdoctoral student in science history visiting London’s Royal Society earlier this year stumbled upon Galileo’s draft of alterations to the letter, which lay forgotten and was misdated in a catalog.

The document shows that the original document sent to the Inquisition by Lorini was the true one, and that the astronomer subsequently attempted to appease the Church by softening the language of his missive.

For instance, one passage in which Gelileo said biblical claims were “false” if taken literally was crossed out and the word “false” replaced with “look different from the truth.” Another change had criticism of the bible “concealing” certain characteristics of its doctrine replaced with “veiling.”

“I thought, ‘I can’t believe that I have discovered the letter that virtually all Galileo scholars thought to be hopelessly lost,'” Salvatore Ricciardo told Nature. “It seemed even more incredible because the letter was not in an obscure library, but in the Royal Society library.”

Ricciardo and his postdoctoral mentor Franco Giudice, from the University of Bergamo, submitted the letter to handwriting analysis which showed it was indeed authored by Galileo.

The researchers believe the letter had been sitting in the library for at least 250 years, and possibly more.

“Galileo’s letter to Castelli is one of the first secular manifestos about the freedom of science,” a delighted Giudice said. “It’s the first time in my life I have been involved in such a thrilling discovery.”

Galileo Galilei’s telescope at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, April 2, 2009 (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Despite Galileo’s early caution in dealings with the Church, he forged ahead with his research and eventually detailed the arguments for the Copernican model of the solar system in his 1632 book “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.”

This led to his trial by the Inquisition a year later. Galileo was found guilty of heresy and placed under house arrest for the final nine years of his life.

More than 350 years later, in 1992, Galileo was rehabilitated by Pope John Paul II, who admitted Church errors in condemning the astronomer and forcing him to recant his scientific findings.

In recent years the Church has moved to honor Galileo, and in 2008 Pope Benedict XVI said he and other scientists had helped the faithful better understand and “contemplate with gratitude the Lord’s works.”

AP contributed to this report.

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