Monday, January 14, 2008

The Morals of Galileo

Galileo Galilei (the Man with the Unimaginative Name) has been cropping up a lot in my reading this year, because I have been on a medieval/renaissance kick in preparation for studying the time period with the ducklings in four years or so. (Overanalyzing is my maternal hobby. I don't scrapbook.)

Books on the Renaissance for grownups do not have as much chronological snobbery as they used to, but books for children still are pretty commonly dedicated to the proposition that the world languished in darkness until a few Italian fellows came up with the bright idea of Questioning Authority and discovered those patently obvious ideas that we all know today.

Exhibit A, of course, is Galileo, a bright little morality tale about the forces of Science versus Organized Religion and Modern Thought versus Superstition. Young children like morality tales, of course--if you do not tell it as one, they will demand to know who the Good Guys and Bad Guys are. But although I recognize this as a necessary stage of moral development, I am not quite content to tell the story so simply.

For one thing, it minimizes the challenge of discovery in the first place. The only reason it is obvious to us that the earth goes around the sun is that we have been told it from childhood; in short, because we have taken it on faith. All the patent evidence goes the other way. Even Galileo's proofs of it were not so good as he thought, and before Galileo there was no real proof of the idea at all. Reluctance to accept an idea that contradicts most evidence and lacks definitive proof is not medieval bigotry; it's just common sense.

For another thing, it reinforces a quite unjustified sense of superiority over those medieval bigots who just accepted so many things unquestioningly. Never do we stop to ask what things we accept unquestioningly that our great-great-great grandchildren will laugh at. We do not ask because we could not answer; it takes an exceptional genius to spot even one or two of those things. But we should always keep it in mind that those things exist.

Even if medieval people were overall less inquisitive and less open than we are, it might do well to remember that they were accustomed to being overrun by barbarians, famine, and plague rather often. Catastrophe concentrates the mind wonderfully, but leaves little time for esoteric debate. Scientific discovery is a luxury item. (The Middle Ages did, in fact, contribute considerable amounts in practical advancement, only when and how is lost, so we cannot write the thrilling biography of the man who developed the improved horse-collar or spread the news about crop rotation.)

When it comes down to Galileo's personal story, too, it is very little a case of Science versus Religion or Modern Thought versus Superstition, on which we can look with modern smugness. Much more it is a case of Old Science versus New Science, and that is a battle that is fought over and over in every field, with no more profound motives than the egos of the people involved. When you have devoted all your life to teaching X as true, as agreed by all your respected colleagues, it is understandably annoying (not to mention absurd) to have some young upstart pronounce that X is false.

Most times the Old Guard cannot bend the Pope's ear and pull the Inquisition into the act, but then simple ostracism can accomplish consequences quite as severe as Galileo's forced retirement to his country villa.

We can still take away the lesson that the forces of church and state should not be placed behind a scientific orthodoxy (but that is a moral that cuts both ways); we can also take away the lesson that more humility on all sides would be beneficial and make us look a tad less ridiculous to our descendants.

The whole controversy, however, seems a little complex for the world of picture books and the minds of children still obsessed with Good Guys and Bad Guys. So I was pleased to find at least one book that told about Galileo's great discoveries as something astonishing and even fun; one that gives the spirit of science without smugness. It's called Galileo's Journal: 1609-1610, by Jeanne K. Pettenati.

On a totally unrelated note: carrot panpipes.


Rose said...

Bravo! You put it so very well.

SongBirdy said...

Very true! A point to further your thoughts, how much of the things they learned are irrelevant to our life styles and therefore lost because of disuse?

For example, house design. I've been in some fantastic older houses where opening a window here and one of there generates a cross-breeze on most days.

Or their knowledge in building techniques that we simply don't need because we've discovered sheer force and the means to reproduce and control that force on demand.

On a side note, I laughed and laughed over the scrapbook note. And am also struck by the irony that my readings have somewhat parallelled your own.