I was completing my PhD in the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University in March 2020, when the pandemic hit my professional life in the face of countless others. The university’s board of directors sent an email announcing the closure of the campus and encouraging researchers to “focus on activities that can be completed remotely, such as writing papers and granting proposals as well.” like completing data analysis.”
It will take years to fully understand what it means to ask scientists around the world to isolate themselves and do science at home. But one of the most famous and misread The test of history – the Galileo affair – offers some hints as to what the global shutdown might mean for the scientific community. Although often interpreted as a battle between science and religion, Galileo’s condemnation by the Catholic Church was more complex. It also involved a book that was withdrawn because of the pandemic.
Early 17th century, a leading cardinal alert Galileo that unless “there is definite proof that the sun,” not the Earth, “is the center of the world,” he could not openly teach his Copernican ideas. At stake is the Bible “seemingly contrary” to it. But years later, Galileo was encouraged by friend Pope Urban VIII published his observations and theories in a book, called “The Dialogue on the Two Major World Systems”.
In 1630, Galileo went to Rome to submit the book to the Vatican for censorship. The chief of censorship, a Dominica cleric friendly with Galileo, was aware that Copernican ideas were not publicly taught. He probably also found that Galileo’s evidence was not so strong. (It will take a few decade to confirm the observation of the emergence of Copernican theory). However, after consulting another one of his aides, the censors approved the book, pending some revisions. Happy with this decision, Galileo returned to Florence while the manuscript remained in Rome.
Then a plague hit Italy. Political borders are closed and people are staying indoors. Worse still, the main sponsor of Galileo’s book in Rome passed away around this time. Because of these limitations, Galileo decided to publish the book closer to home. After some protest, the censor in Rome agreed to send the manuscript to Florence. However, the locking process was complicated and the book was sent in parts. When the censors in Florence received the first chapters, they found that it had the first approval from Rome. They didn’t worry much about revisions, and the book was already in the press even before the final installment arrived in Florence. Furthermore, Galileo’s amendments were not read by Roman censors.
The book is finally out, but its revision process is very irregular. For example, as a request for amendment, Galileo had to write about the scientific impossibility to confirm the Copernican hypothesis – an idea held by Pope Urban. But Galileo decided to write it in such a way that the claim that the Copernican theory could not be proved absurd. The Pope felt betrayed when he read the book. Under immense political and religious pressure from the ongoing Thirty Years’ War — the same conflict that brought plague to Italy — the pope decided to react. “Dialogue” was taken out of circulation, and Galileo had his idea dropped before the Roman Inquisition. He offered to write a final chapter to soften his arguments, but it was too late.
If Galileo had not rushed to publish the book and the censors had followed the normal process, the book would not have been banned and the story of the battle between science and religion would not have begun.
Centuries later, as our course begins, shifting scientists’ priority to writing-oriented tasks seems like a good solution. And modern communication technology makes the problems that Galileo ailing less likely to happen. However, a major change in work habits during a stressful situation — and prolonged physical isolation from collaborators — will always lead to unintended consequences. A degree of vigilance and self-reflection, and understanding of history, will be needed to help predict and avoid such problems.
Mr. Castel-Branco is a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.
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Appears December 31, 2021, print edition.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/galileo-and-the-pandemic-covid-lockdown-florence-isolate-censor-sun-earth-pope-science-11640890024 Galileo and the Pandemic – WSJ