Tag Archives: International Year of Astronomy

The Galileo myths

Dr Marc Crislip

For a while there I had wondered if I was the only one who noticed the current attempts of theistically motivated historians and philosophers to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair. But no, greater minds have come to a similar conclusions. I picked up this quote from Marc Crislip on the most recent podcast of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe:

“Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious. Today, he is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say they are being oppressed by science. So 1984.”

So true.

Last year was the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating in part Galileo’s original use of a telescope to observe heavenly bodies. An important celebration for science.

But it was also taken up by Christian apologists, historians and philosophers. A number of books were published rewriting the history in a way more sympathetic to the church. Opinion pieces were written and the apologist blogs eagerly leaped on the bandwagon. An all too common atmosphere of martyrdom was spread. George Sim Johnston, wrote recently on the Catholic Education Resource Centre blog that “the Galileo case is one of the historical bludgeons that are used to beat on the Church.”

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Where is Galileo?

There is a lot going on this year to engage those of us interested in science. The 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book “The Origin of Species” is being celebrated throughout the world.

It would be very easy to get “all Darwined out” because there is just so much available. New books, lectures, TV documentaries, etc. However, there is just so much variety in what is available. OK, there has been a lot of biographical information – but even this has provided new insights. Modern biographies also provide more interest because of new findings and new approaches. These days biographies are less reticent about dealing with negative features of a person’s life or personality.

But this year much of the material has concentrated on different aspects. The influence of Darwin’s ideas on society, the conflict with religion, Darwin’s contribution in the context of the evolution of science and society at his time, recent findings in evolutionary science and  modern scientific controversies in evolutionary science. And the seemingly ever present political struggles or “conflict of cultures.”

So the Darwin celebrations have provided a great opportunity for discussion of scientific ideas and philosophies.

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Blaming the victim

galileo_31This year is the International Year of Astronomy and, in part, marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei’s first use of telescopes for astronomic observation. And we can’t remember Galileo without also remembering how he was treated by the Church.

I find it interesting, however, that there seems to be a fashion amongst some Christian apologists, and even some others, to blame Galileo for this experience. In other words to blame the victim.

The basic facts are well known. The Catholic Church had banned the advocacy of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth orbited the sun. They declared that it was contrary to the literal meaning of scripture. Despite Galileo’s forced recantation of these ideas he lived out the rest of his life under house arrest on orders of the Roman Inquisition.

A classic example of dogmatism preventing honest scientific investigation.

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Cosmological cranes – not skyhooks

In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Daniel Dennett draws out the philosophical significance of evolution by natural selection. Darwin himself hesitated to apply his ideas to humanity, let alone to wider philosophical issues.


Dennett describes how natural selection explains phenomena such as development and evolution, using “cranes”, rather than “skyhooks”. How development can arise internally rather than relying on an external “designer” or “manipulator.” He also describes natural selection as the “universal acid.” All this implies the concepts of natural selection can be applied more widely than just biology.

One application Dennett mentions is in cosmology and he briefly describes Lee Smolin’s idea of cosmological natural selection in his book. 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. It is also the year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (February 12) and the 150th anniversary of publication of his The Origin of Species. So it is fitting to link the two commemorations and cosmological natural selection does this.

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International Year of Astronomy

This year has been declared as the International Year of Astronomy. It marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first astronomical observations using a telescope and the publication of Johannes Kepler’s Astronomia Nova (which described the fundamental laws of planetary motion). The year will be marked by events in many countries – including New Zealand.

As a science astronomy is part of a truly global culture. Much of astronomical research occurs within the context of cooperative international ventures. It also interests and inspires people from all countries. We can all be enthralled with the success of recent interplanetary probes to Mars and Saturn. And with the photographs of astronomical objects taken by the Hubble Telescope.

Modern cosmological theories on the origin and evolution of the universe also attract wide interest.

I think it is fitting that 2009 also sees the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary oif the first publication of his great work The origin of Species. Heightened interest in the ideas of biological  evolution and natural selection fits well with current interest in the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life. Recent findings from Mars and the ongoing discovery of extra-solar planets (now over 300) are highly relevant.

The International Year of Astronomy also fits well with current interest in particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider, which will (hopefully) become operational this year. Our understanding of cosmology and the origin of the universe is intimately connected to theoretical physics and the nature of matter. The LHC experiments should improve our knowledge in these areas.

See also:
International Year of Astronomy website
New Zealand activities

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