Science and Religion Friday: The Galileo Affair, Part 2

Last week, I began looking at the Galileo affair by suggesting that the conflict had to do primarily with competing secular idealogies, both of which had their share of flaws, and was not fundamentally about religion. This week, I’ll continue that line of thought, but also introduce the idea that the conflict was more the result of competing, and strong, personalities.

The Trouble Begins

The trouble for Galileo, interestingly enough, did not begin with his suggestion of an alternate astronomical model for the universe, but in an entirely different realm of physics: fluid displacement. Specifically, Galileo sided with Archimedes rather than Aristotle in the explanation for why certain things sink in water while others float. To be sure, today’s explanation is prefigured much more so by Archimedes than Aristotle. Galileo first published his papers on the matter in 1586, twenty-three years before he began his telescopic observations. It is at this point he would have first earned the ire of supporters of Aristotle’s method.

Later, he Galileo would perform his study of the tides, suggesting that they were the result of the earth’s motion, again contradicting the prevailing Aristotelian model. It is possible that Galileo began to prefer Copernicus to Ptolemy and Aristotle by this point, but Galileo provides no concrete evidence of this fact. At any rate, by this point it seems that the Church was either indifferent to Galileo, or even possibly supportive of him. It is no secret that the official calendar had been updated in 1582 in light of Copernicus’s theories regarding revolution and it is possible that they might have been moving toward the gradual adoption of said theories (though, I admit, this is highly speculative; and in all likelihood, the Dominicans would have prevented such a shift without some sort of controversy). At any rate, Galileo seems to have come into conflict with one particular Aristotelian philosopher and astronomer, Lodovico delle Colombe.

Colombe, it should be noted, had no role in the church whatsoever. He was a private philosophy tutor who accepted only Aristotelian philosophy, and defended it vehemently in print. First, he began writing works denouncing the motion of the earth, instead favoring the static Aristotelian concept. By this point Galileo had begun his observations through a telescope and also suggested that the moon had craters, meaning that it was uneven thus further contradicting Aristotle.

Apparently you can buy a copy of one of Galileo’s responses to Colombe for a measly $2,250. Who knew?

Colombe attempted to defend the Aristotelian position against Galileo by offering alternatives to maintain not only a static earth, but a smooth and uniform moon. In this, it seems that Colombe was hopelessly outmatched. Although the standard rhetoric of

academic disputes tended to be more inflammatory than we typically think of such arguments today, it seems Galileo took things

too far. Not content merely to demonstrate his views were superior to Colombe, Galileo took to publicly and privately humiliating Colombe. Columbe’s surname sounded like the Italian plural for “dove”, and Galileo referred to him as Pippione, from the Italian (now archaic) for young pigeon, which may also have meant testicle. While Colombe may not have been Galileo’s scientific equal, it seems that Galileo grossly underestimated Colombe’s political savvy.

I should also note that during this time Galileo became involved in a dispute with a Jesuit, Christoph Scheiner. It seems they both claimed to have discovered sunspots first. This became a long running dispute between the two, with each clearly plagiarizing from the other while claiming that the other one had plagiarized from them. It is possible that this conflict would also later factor into other decisions.


Beginning around 1611, Galileo met with a variety of Jesuit scientists, almost all of whom were at least sympathetic to his position, if not outright agreeing with him. That same year, he received word from a friend that a plot was being made to discredit him, and possibly put him into severe danger. His friend referred to the conspirators in this plot as “the pigeon league” meaning that Colombe was almost certainly behind it. Since Colombe had failed to discredit Galileo academically, he decided to go after Galileo using the primary political tool in Italy at the time: the Roman Catholic Church. Not being a monk or in the priesthood himself, however, Colombe needed someone within the church to publicly label Galileo’s ideas heretical. It seems he had one such Dominican priest prepared to do just that in 1611, but he backed out of the plan. It is important to note that Colombe was using the Dominicans for a number of reasons, two of which are of particular importance:

1) The Dominicans held an obscene amount of power in the Roman Catholic Church, thus it was advantageous to have them as an ally. The only ones even remotely close to them in power (as a unified group) were the Jesuits.

2) The Dominicans have in the history of their ranks Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, if you are not familiar, was exclusively an Aristotelian in his philosophical, and subsequent theological, thought. This meant, in turn, that Dominicans were (and today still are) very committed to Aristotelian philosophy, which at the time included statements about physics and astronomy.

Once Galileo began to suggest that the universe was heliocentric rather than geocentric, the latter being an Aristotelian view, Colombe began to make his move. As mentioned, his first priest backed out at the last minute. Three years later in 1614, however, the group found another Dominican, Tomasso Caccini, to publicly criticize Galileo in a sermon, as well as all mathematicians and astronomers. Soon afterward, Galileo set out for Rome, apparently to clear his name, the trip would not work out so well, as will be detailed next week.

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