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The Day the Earth Stood Still

Galileo FT277

Galileo’s prosecution by the Church for promoting the heliocentric theory – that the Sun sits at the centre of the Solar System encircled by the Earth and other planets – is usually portrayed as a landmark battle in the war between religion and science, the moment when Galileo becomes science’s first great martyr.

However, when revisiting the story during our research for our book The For­bidden Universe, we realised that the trad­itional explanations of the Church’s determin­ation to get Galileo just don’t add up. Applying the shameless CGI of hindsight, science historians transmuted him into a modern rationalist-materialist born out of time, persecuted by superstitious – in other words cretinous – men whose intell­ects, if one could dignify them with the term, were stuck in the Middle Ages.

That’s the lazy sod’s version of history. The reality, as forteans would suspect, is that there’s much, much more to it than that.

In fact, although the ‘science-versus-religion’ scenario is still often trotted out to a popular audience, academics have long recognised that it is too modern an explanation. They now see the affair rather as a collision between two obstinate egos, two pathologically ‘right men’: Galileo, who refused to be told what to do or say, and Pope Urban VIII, bitter about Galileo (in his Dialogue on the Two World Systems) having put his views in the mouth of a character named Simplicio. But something is still missing – something that neither side wanted to be seen in the harsh light of day…