To the Editor:
In the September 7 Republican debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry commented that Galileo "got outvoted for a spell." This can be taken to mean either that Perry's position on global warming and Galileo's on heliocentrism are in the same boat, both being doubted at the time, or alternatively that he ("pray for rain") and the Catholic Church are in the same boat, both pitted against newfangled scientific theories.
Which is it, Galileo against the science of his day, or Galileo against the religion of his day? But there is a third version of the Galileo story that has hardly been told.
We hear a lot from academia about Galileo's treatment by the church. We hear very little from that quarter, though, about his "earliest conflicts with authority," which the Galileo scholar Stillman Drake told us were not about the church. They were with professors at the University of Pisa, whom Galileo accused of instigating the charge of heresy that the clerics later prosecuted. The professors "outvoted" Galileo—not on scientific grounds, but on the grounds that his science violated Scripture. This is something, Drake said, that has been "not only ignored but denied."
It is curious that in the enormous literature which has grown out of the events, Galileo's charge against the professors of philosophy has not even been noticed. One might think them to have been innocent bystanders at a confrontation that did not concern them, or at worst clownish reactionaries who wrote some trifling books in opposition to Galileo's new science. The documents show, however, that Galileo's charge was just; before any priest spoke out against him, his philosopher opponents declared his opinion contrary to the Bible.
Drake implicated at least 14 philosophers in this charge. The only figure he reported coming to Galileo's aid—aside from those in the fledgling Lincean Academy, an early independent scientific society that nurtured and published Galileo's works—is Tommaso Campanella, who spent most of his life in prison. After Galileo joined the Linceans in 1611, his published works—including his final Two New Sciences, which had to be smuggled out of Italy and published elsewhere—gave his name as "Galileo Galilei Linceo." We have now had an apologia of sorts from the pope; we are still waiting to hear from the professors.
It is not just accidental that Drake should be the only scholar to tell the story of Galileo versus the professors. Having made his living as a financial consultant, Drake taught for only 12 years later in life—after the University of Toronto, recognizing the importance of the Galileo studies he had done on his own, appointed him to a full professorship. Drake was never dependent on academia, therefore, for his livelihood or his reputation; and like Galileo, he did not shrink from inconvenient truths.
I have noticed, as have others, that the field of history of science seems more welcoming of independent scholars than most, perhaps because it is a relatively young field, pioneered in America by George Sarton (1884-1956), who founded the History of Science Society (1924) and its excellent journal Isis. Sarton remained a maverick independent thinker, even during his years at Harvard when he helped to establish its history-of-science curriculum.
Whatever the reason, though, the scholarly world could do itself a favor by being more inclusive of independent scholars. Galileo scholarship would be incalculably poorer without Stillman Drake. And the wider world would have been incalculably poorer without Galileo Galilei Linceo—not to mention Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, Boyle, Pascal, Laplace, Hume, Diderot, Rousseau, Bentham, the Herschels (William and John), Lyell, Darwin, Huxley, Marx ... the list of independent scientists and scholars is very long.
Toni Vogel Carey
Blue Bell, Pa.
Ms. Carey is writing a history of independent scholars.