Galileo Got Sneaky in Bid to Fend Off Inquisition

Scholars say he edited his own letter to soften his views
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 24, 2018 12:10 PM CDT

(Newser) – Galileo: groundbreaking astronomer and early master of spin. UK researchers say they have found a long-lost letter written by Galileo that shows he engaged in a little deception to fend off the Inquisition. It's all laid out in Nature, and it takes a little unpacking. The saga began when Galileo wrote to a friend in 1613 saying he now believed the Earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa. This was heretical in the eyes of the Catholic Church, but in his letter Galileo scoffed at the idea of taking the Bible literally on such matters. Copies made the rounds, and Galileo faced big trouble when a friar forwarded it to the Inquisition. This is where researchers say Galileo got sneaky—by asking his friend for the original back so he could soften it. For example, Galileo wrote that certain things in the Bible were "false," but he changed that to say they “look different from the truth."

After changes like that, he had a friend forward it to the Vatican, arguing that it was his original and that the version in the church's hands had been doctored by enemies. The researchers say they know this now because they found the original letter in Britain's Royal Society library, where it was discovered by chance last month after being mislabled. They say the edits are in Galileo's own hand, showing that he was trying to exercise damage control, per Nature. Don't judge him harshly for this, writes Jennifer Ouellette at Ars Technica. The changes are minor, and "it’s difficult for us to conceive just how dangerous a time the 17th century was for scientists and scholars who dared to cross the Catholic Church." In any event, Galileo would be convicted of heresy in 1633; he spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest. (It's all thanks to his revolutionary telescope.)

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