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In 1609 Galileo turned his newly perfected spyglass to the heavens; in January of 1610 he discovered the satellites of Jupiter, and within a few months published his astonishing findings. In his Sidereus nuncius or "Starry Messenger" he allowed himself one Copernican remark. Some people had refused to accept the notion of an of the earth revolving about the sun because they could see no way to keep the moon attached in orbit about a moving earth, but everyone - geocentrist or heliocentrist - agreed that Jupiter was moving. This should give some pause, Galileo wrote, to those who refused to accept Copernicus' idea because a moving body couldn't carry along a moon.

Before the year was out Galileo had discovered the phases of Venus, a pattern that showed Venus traveled around the sun, contrary to the Ptolemaic arrangement. The observed phases of Venus proved Ptolemy wrong, but did not prove Copernicus right. Like Copernicus before him, Galileo never found an observational proof of the earth’s motion. Nevertheless, the fat was in the fire, so to say, and presently Galileo followed Kepler's footsteps in offering an explanation of certain scriptural passages such as the account of Joshua at the battle of Gibeon. He maintained that the Bible should not be taken literally as a scientific textbook, since its purpose was different, and he quoted Cardinal Baronius, librarian of the Vatican, that "the Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."

As a consequence of Galileo’s well-publicized opinions, conservative churchmen in Rome became worried that the standard interpretation, that Copernicus system was just a calculating device, not to be mistaken for physical reality, was under attack. The issue was particularly sensitive because Western Christendom was no longer monolithic - north of the Alps the Protestants were interpreting other Scriptures their own way, and the Roman theologians, determined to maintain a unified front, were not prepared to put up with an amateur interpreter like Galileo. It is interesting to note that Pope John-Paul II has recently declared that Galileo was a better theologian than the professionals with whom he was contending. In any event, just to make sure that everyone understood what was involved in the cosmological issue, the Congregation of the Index moved to place Copernicus' De revolutionibus on the Index of Prohibited Books until corrected, and for the first and only time, the Congregation actually specified how a book was to be corrected. In this case ten changes were ordered, almost all to make the book appear more hypothetical. Toward the end of the glorious cosmological chapter Copernicus explained why the earth’s swift motion around the sun does not produce any observable consequence in the positions of the stars themselves: they are simply too far away. “So vast, without any question, is the divine work of the Almighty Creator.” Why would such a pious statement be excised? Because it contained a whiff of reality, as if this was the way the Creator had done it.

The drama that unfolded in 1632, when Galileo published his enthusiastically pro-Copernican Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems, and his trial by the Inquisition the following year, is well known. I don't have time here to rehearse the story with the careful nuances that it deserves. Suffice it to say that Galileo was vehemently suspected of heresy though not actually convicted of it, but for disobeying orders in teaching the Copernican doctrine, he was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life .

Galileo remained a hero in Italy, and after a century a Venetian printer sought to include the Dialogo as the fourth volume in an edition of all of Galileo's works, though the book had been placed on the Index in 1633. The permission was actually granted, but with a requirement that an explanation be included about the difference between theses and hypotheses. Then, a few years later, Pope Benedict XIV ordered the removal from the new edition of the Index in 1758 of the indictment of books teaching the mobility of the earth. The Pope’s message was obscured by the fact that Copernicus' De revolutionibus, Kepler's Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, and Galileo's Dialogo nevertheless remained on the list. These books did not disappear from the Index until the edition of 1835.

The publication of Copernicus' De revolutionibus in 1543 was of course only the initial step in what Alexandre Koyré called the march from a closed world to an infinite universe. Displacing humankind from the unique center of the cosmos to an orbiting planet was not necessarily a bad thing. Kepler argued that the moving vantage point gave us a much better view of the heavens, and Bishop John Wilkins declared that the center was a pit of corruption - how much loftier to be out among the celestial bodies. In fact, it is the vastness of both space and time that proves to be a greater threat to the traditional Biblical view that we occupy a focal point in the purpose of Creation itself, as if the universe was made for mind, and we are the living embodiment of that fundamental idea - a theme that I hope we will explore on Friday.

If our conference were more leisurely, I would examine more fully the human impulse to know our place in the physical universe, an exploration closely akin to our religious aspirations. In what way, if any, are we significant in the cosmic scheme of things? Such tacit questions moved the King of Denmark to provide a ton of gold to support Tycho Brahe's observatory on Hven, and today motivate funding for the Hubble Space Telescope and for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Constraints of time force me to skip about 300 years in the story of cosmology and theology, including Richard Bentley’s 1693 sermons on A Confutation of Atheism from the Origin and Frame of the World, one of our best sources for the philosophical thinking of Isaac Newton. Neverthess, I wish to touch on some critical questions from the twentieth century that have particular relevance to our considerations.

Contributed by: Dr. Owen Gingerich

Cosmic Questions

Did the Universe Have a Beginning? Topic Index
Scientific Cosmology Meets Western Theology: A Historical Perspective


The Challenge of Copernicus
Two Mythological Arguments
Objections to Copernicus
Osiander's Introduction
Hubble's Expanding Universe and Lemaître's Primeval Atom
The Steady-State, Big Bang and Religion
Too Easy an Answer?


Owen Gingerich

Related Media:

Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Was the Universe Designed?
Are We Alone?
Interview Index
The Copernican Solar System
Ptolemy's Solar System
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Other Resources:

The Rise of Copernicanism
The Galileo Affair
Glossary Terms
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