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Galileo Galilei, explorer of the skies

The man who revealed to us science's great truths, toppling, in the process, God and God's voice on Earth

Galileo using a telescope, circa 1620. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Galileo using a telescope, circa 1620. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you go to Florence with the twisted desire to behold Galileo Galilei’s remains, there are two places to visit. If your interest lies in withered, physical fragments of genius, you must walk to the Museum of Science where a glass egg holds his middle finger—something he once raised in constructive opposition to the Catholic church—with two other digits and one tooth for company. The balance of Galileo’s body, enclosed in the integrity of a magnificent tomb, lies in the Basilica of Santa Croce, where his shriveled companions range from Machiavelli to Michelangelo (whose corpse “admirers" smuggled from Rome—evidently stealing the dead was acceptable conduct in those days).

The basilica is a spectacular structure in a spectacular city and for 600 years someone or the other was still building it—it was only in 1863 that the marble façade was fixed. I parked myself on a bench outside and read about the great man buried inside, acting with self-conscious decorum before locals sitting on the steps, drinking beer by the evening light. Galileo, at any rate, would not have objected to the alcohol—when, in contravention of sacred, irrational traditions, he wrote The Assayer (1623), a foundational work for modern physics and methods of science, one orthodox critic suggested that perhaps Galileo was suffering from an overdose of wine.

Born in 1564, Galileo was the son of a musician. After a boyhood in Florence, he went to university in Pisa, affronting its masters by demonstrating uncommon intelligence. Acquiring considerable numerical knowledge, he declared that the “book of Nature is written in mathematical language. Its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures" without which “one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth" of religious ignorance. Naturally, with outrageous ideas like this, he returned to Florence broke and without prospects. His popularity with students, however, rescued him—Pisa hired him as a lecturer, where he impressed pupils with his contrarian charisma, composing such memorable lines as, “Only wear gowns/if you’re a dimwit who frowns."

Over the years, Galileo moved about a great deal, struggling to earn a living and to support his mistress. The Medici grand dukes of Florence, whose imprint remains visible across the city, patronized him and, later, extended protection. In 1605 he tutored a Medici and in 1609 he annoyed this Medici’s mother—oblivious to the difference between an astronomer and an astrologer, she commissioned him to produce her dying husband’s horoscope. A debt-ridden Galileo, without irony, accepted, prophesizing a delightfully extended future for the ailing duke, guaranteed by the heavens. As it happened, the man died within the week.

Galileo’s greatest successes did, however, come from the stars. The telescope, invented in 1609, allowed, as R. Hooke wrote, a “transmigration into heaven, even whil’st we remain here upon earth in the flesh". Galileo developed a model 30 times more powerful than the Dutch prototype to investigate the skies. Soon he showed that the moon was not a smooth, divine orb, but a place with mountains and craters—all the imperfections of Earth afflicted heaven too. He discovered Jupiter’s moons and the phases of Venus, concluding in 1612 that Earth was not the centre of the universe, as certified by the Bible, but that it revolved around the sun with infinite space beyond, of which we were but a tiny fragment.

It was a fascinating time. In 1610, Galileo had published his Starry Messenger (immodestly hinting that his consequence to history was greater than could be commemorated by any memorial now). Thinkers across Europe were animated by the possibilities this opened up. Space travel appeared in Francis Godwin’s The Man In The Moone (1628) and within a decade it was suggested that one day humans would indeed venture beyond Earth. Other works of fiction like The States & Empires Of The Moon (1657)—featuring four-legged aliens and rockets—explored the theory that there might be other habitable worlds out there. This was more than just creative writing: Fiction offered a safer avenue to articulate controversial ideas in the teeth of papal opposition without fearing charges of heresy.

Galileo, however, was hardly the diplomatic type. He began his damning Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems (1632) on an understanding with the pope that he could articulate his view but must concede that Christian traditions were paramount. Galileo did the exact opposite, and soon found himself tried by powerful men with small minds, contemplating techniques for his liquidation. In the end he was prevailed upon to state that he “abjured, cursed, and detested" his theory of Earth’s revolution around the sun, muttering “but it still moves" defiantly under his breath. Partly because there were sympathetic factions within the church, it was decided that the man would not be roasted. He was to spend the rest of his days under house arrest.

When old, blind Galileo died in 1642, the Medici sought to bury him inside Santa Croce beside other great sons of Florence—the pope objected and it would take 95 years of persuasion before the remains were installed inside the basilica. My own visit to Santa Croce ended in disappointment, though—the doors were shut and I couldn’t enter to view the spot where Galileo lies. I had to satisfy myself through a picture pamphlet instead. Rising from the bench outside and from the gaze of the beer drinkers, I performed a perambulation of the building; a consolatory revolution of my own around the resting place of the man who revealed to us science’s great truths, toppling, in the process, God and God’s voice on Earth.

Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.

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