Galileo was Right—But So Were His Critics | Kevin Schmiesing | CWR
An interview with Dr. Christopher M. Graney, author of "Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo"
Ever since the seventeenth century, the celebrated “Galileo affair” has been one of the featured items on the list of dark moments in the history of Catholicism. That the Church mistreated the Italian astronomer—or at least misjudged his claims concerning the structure of the solar system—seems clear. Pope John Paul II, for example, apologized for the Church’s condemnation of Galileo in 1992. No one now disputes the fact that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around.
For anti-Catholic historians and polemicists the episode is but the most obvious instance of the supposedly perennial conflict between religion—often enough Catholicism specifically—and science. The seventeenth-century battle, in the conventional view, pitted clergymen, who relied on revelation, against scientists, who relied on empirical observation.
But what if this typical portrayal of the heliocentric debate is almost entirely wrong?
That’s the claim of Dr. Christopher M. Graney in Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). Graney, professor of physics at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky, credits a question from one of his students with propelling him into an exploration of the history of heliocentrism and its skeptics. He corresponded recently about his surprising findings.
CWR: One of the blurbs on the back cover calls it “the most exciting history of science book so far this century.” I took that as hyperbole—until I read the book. It has the potential to overturn some important and entrenched narratives in the history of the relation between science and religion. To understand how, we need to know a little bit about the central character, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, whom you seem determined to rescue from obscurity. Who was he and why is he important?
Graney: Your comment about obscurity reminds me of my wife dubbing me “Riccioli’s agent.” He was an Italian Jesuit priest who worked in Bologna. He was born at the turn of the seventeenth century, so he was a very young man when Galileo was making big discoveries with the telescope in the 1610’s. Riccioli was bitten by the science bug, and eventually obtained permission from his superiors to devote time to science. He did a lot of physics experiments, including some of the first experiments to precisely study gravity. His results were quite good (he was very “detail oriented,” maybe to the point of being a little obsessive about it). He made a lot of astronomical observations with the telescope; he and his fellow Jesuit Francesco Maria Grimaldi gave the features on the moon the names we use today. Your readers may recall that Apollo 11 landed in an area on the moon called “Tranquility.” Riccioli gave it that name. He wrote a huge book on physics and astronomy, called the New Almagest, published in 1651, that became a standard reference book. He was a prominent opponent of the heliocentric theory and was well-known in his time.
CWR: One of your main contentions is that even though in the long run Copernicus would be proven right by science, considering what was known at the time Riccioli actually had the stronger scientific case. Can you describe some of the problems that heliocentric theorists in the early seventeenth century had no good answer for?