To Know or To Believe

Giuseppe Bertini, fresco of Galileo Galilei and the Doge of Venice

Giuseppe Bertini, fresco of Galileo Galilei and the Doge of Venice

It’s an old struggle.

New things are learned, most often, when something we take for granted is seen with fresh eyes, and observed, recorded, analyzed, and understood in new ways. At first the instruments used are crude and the analysis is inexact. Over time growing knowledge, good workmanship and creativity come together to create new instruments and foster new, more accurate observations which lead to new ways to understand what is observed. Each step builds on the ones before. Mistakes are made and corrected. Knowledge grows.

The next step is sharing the new understanding, the new knowledge – and that can be dangerous. What is newly understood is not always accepted, no matter how rigorous the methods of exploration or how clear the explanation.

Galileo certainly learned this. As he developed the knowledge of the skies and the bodies that move through it that we now rely on, he was aware that what he was learning contradicted the teaching of the church of his time. For a long time he was careful to conceal what he knew, but he did share much of what it was based on. He taught, he published books, he created a better telescope which he presented and demonstrated to the Venetian senate.

It was that telescope that allowed him to see the moon and other stars and planets in the night sky. He observed them, considered, weighed what he observed and calculated against his own ideas and the theories of his time.

He saw that the theory that best explained his observations was the Copernican theory, a dangerous one to choose. He waited, keeping his thoughts to himself until he felt that he could present them with the least risk – but he miscalculated. The Roman Catholic church was tremendously powerful, and considered what he observed and understood to be heresy because it contradicted the official teachings of the church.

In this beautiful fresco by Guiseppe Bertini, Galileo demonstrates his new, improved telescope to the Doge of Venice. The Doge (chosen as leader by the most powerful families in Venice) is richly and ceremonially dressed. He peers intently through the telescope Galileo has created, looking out through the window and over the water. Galileo hovers, watching the Doge and holding the base of the telescope securely on the table. A globe sits on the floor by the table, a diagram is propped against the wall.

Galileo is framed against the translucent glass of a window. In the background others hover. There are representatives of the church in their red robes and white collars and representatives of the nobility, fashionably dressed. Most look sceptical, somewhat uncomfortable. You can sense the doubt and worry and the likelihood of trouble. To contradict the beliefs set out by the church was to face the possibility of prison or death.  In the end Galileo was sentenced to prison for sharing his knowledge, though he was allowed to serve his sentence as house arrest.

It’s a picture of the struggle between what is accepted and what is newly learned.

A struggle that seems to be part of human nature.

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