Galileo And the Science Deniers: Story of science of denial and how, centuries later, things are still the same

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Published: July 12, 2020 4:00 AM

Cloaked in the story of Galileo Galilei is the story of science deniers, and how, centuries later, things are still the same

Cristiano Banti’s 1857 painting depicting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, a judicial system established by the papacy in 1542 to regulate church doctrine.

It is interesting how the human brain makes associations. I say the word apple, and you would immediately start forming an image of a green or red apple in your mind. I say batman and the association is of the caped crusader or joker. The name Galileo takes me back to my science textbook and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. One of the first attributions as a child, you would remember, is of a bearded man standing next to the tower demonstrating how Aristotle was wrong. However, it is not clear whether the event ever took place. Although Vincenzo Viviani writes about it, many believe it was only a thought experiment.

Nevertheless, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Galileo have somehow gotten associated. The other association, for Dan Brown or Tom Hanks fans—mostly everybody I believe—is the mention of Galileo Galilei’s supposed fictional work Diagramma Della Verita. Galileo does not feature anywhere in the movie, The Da Vinci Code, but Dan Brown made him famous as this crusader against the church.

In contrast, Mario Livio’s account in Galileo and the Science Deniers is more realistic. But that does not mean that it does not contain the war between science and religion. Galileo’s story cannot be complete without the tiff between science and religion. Livio, an astronomer and a renowned bestseller, does a better job in not cloaking Galileo’s life in mysteries and conspiracies.

But he does not fail either; the book by a long shot is not a boring science-y read. It is, instead, a fascinating, lesser-known account of Galileo’s life. But more than that, it is the story of science deniers. Galileo does form a large part of the read, but Livio pays equal attention to theories and people who went on to deny Galileo’s findings, ultimately leading to his home confinement. The world is familiar with Galileo’s work on heliocentricity, but what Livio sheds light on are the ambiguities and eccentricities in Galileo’s life and work. More so, his constant struggle with a catholic church.

Robert Bellarmine is given the critical role in this writing in interpreting or reinterpreting the theological debate to include astronomy as a matter of faith. It did not take the church long, just 400 years, to admit Galileo was right. But by then things had changed. Tycho Brahe’s and his hybrid system also finds resonance in this book, and he figures quite prominently throughout, with the notion of there being another earth around which the sun revolves. Ultimately, the church had to be right about the planets and the sun revolving around the earth, which is the seat for Christendom.

Livio’s expertise is in explaining the most difficult concepts in astronomy with relative ease, and his magic is in having the same grasp of theology to explain matters related to Christian thinking and dilemma with perfect rhythm. Not a Hollywood novel or a bestseller read it does lend a new perspective to denial.

For those of us living in the 21st century, we are witnessing a revival of this denial with much more fervour. The president of a nation known for its scientific temper is at the forefront of such debates. America had lost to global warming and is losing to coronavirus owing to this denial. So are many nations around the world. Social media and others are fuelling this post-truth reality. The only difference is that while Galileo was the only one home confined owing to the curse of science deniers, today we all have to bear the brunt of denials. Livio has done an excellent job at portraying this denial, and his work could not have come at a better time.

As for associations, every time someone mentions Galileo, my mind wanders to Galileo’s drawing of phases of moons. How beautifully he was able to record his observations. And, how ignorant people were to have discarded his notions as heresy. The world went round in circles for another two centuries to find Galileo was right. It took another two for the Vatican to admit it.

Book details

Galileo And the Science Deniers
Mario Livio
Simon & Schuster
Pp 304, Rs599

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