Eppur Si Muove!

The story alluded to by my title is apocryphal, but the full account of Galileo’s trial before the Holy Roman Inquisition is a matter of historical truth. 

Although he is sometimes mistakenly credited with the invention of the telescope, Galileo’s real contribution is to have used telescopes for celestial investigations.  He was about 40 years old when he learned of the Dutch invention and decided to build his own, pointing it at the moon, the stars, and the Sun.  He was the first to observe sunspots and their movement as they revolve with the Sun, conclusive evidence that prior teachings that the Sun was a perfect unchanging sphere were incorrect.  He was the first to see the moons of Jupiter and to witness their revolution around that planet, calling into question prior teachings about the perfection of the planets.  And perhaps most signficantly, he observed the crescent of Venus. 

This was critically important because the fact that Venus has celestial phases when observed from the Earth implies motion about the Sun.  A heliocentric model of the solar system in which the planets revolve about the Sun had been put forth many decades earlier by Nicolaus Copernicus.  Galileo had expressed private support for that theory as early as 1597, but remained hesitant about making his views public because of the consequences Copernicus had faced:  “I have not dared until now to bring my reasons and refutations into the open, being warned by the fortunes of Copernicus himself, our master, who procured for himself immortal fame among a few but stepped down among the great crowd.”  It was Galileo’s observations with the telescope that finally emboldened him to make his views public.  After all, anyone could take a telescope like he did, point it at the sky, and see the same conclusive evidence with their own eyes. 

Galileo’s publications began to assert the heliocentric nature of the solar system openly, notably in his Letters on the Solar Spots, which attracted the first attack from the Church.  Only the Aristotelian model could be correct, the Church asserted, because a heliocentric model was contrary to scripture.  Galileo’s writings were brought to the attention of the Holy Roman Inquisition by members of the clergy.  Things escalated, with more pressure being brought against Galileo to recant as he resolutely maintained that they should simply take a telescope and look for themselves rather than be shackled by doctrinal belief. 

In 1623, Galileo had six private audiences with the Pope, resulting in a compromise:  Galileo would write a book, presenting both views — hauntingly familiar to the demands we see today to present “both sides” of an issue even when there is no real scientific controversy.  His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, would be fateful.  Written as a dialogue among three people, Galileo cast Simplicio, a pompous fool, in the role of defending the Aristotelian model and presenting the view of the Pope. 

He was arrested and tried for heresy by the Inquisition.  Under threat of execution, he recanted the Copernican theory so that he could live the remainer of his life under house arrest.  But he is said to have uttered “Eppur si muove!” when he was sentenced — “And yet it moves!”  There is no real historical evidence that he said it, and the reality is that he was very probably broken by the experience.  Nonetheless, we romantically admire the defiance of a man with such conviction in the conclusions of his observations that he would maintain them against action so strong that it took his persecutors almost four hundred years to finally acknowledge his mistreatment, still centuries after his ideas became commonplace. 

While of course not rising to the level of the Galileo affair, the Commonwealth of Virginia has recently been engaging in activity that raises far too many questions about its motivation.  The Attorney General of Virginia, Kenneth Cuccinelli, was unsuccessful this week in his attempt to subpoena records from the University of Virginia as part of a fraud investigation into a grant supporting the research of Michael Mann.  Mann is a climate researcher who has — for reasons that can only be characterized as bizarre — become a focal point of efforts to discredit research that suggests human activity is causing global climate change.  I previously wrote about Mann and his exoneration in the “Climategate” allegations here.

The principal reason that the actions of Virginia are concerning is that the Attorney General has such little basis to support his actions, raising significant questions about his true objectives.  In April, he issued a civil subpoena demanding that the University of Virginia produce a swath of documents relating to Mann’s receipt of funds to support his research, including ten years of correspondence involving Mann and more than 40 other climate scientists.  The University resisted, noting the chilling effect that can result on academic freedom when private correspondence is baselessly subject to government review. 

There is controversy over Mann’s conclusions.  A small amount of this controversy is scientific, questioning his methodology, and deserves to be explored.  Unfortunately, most of the controversy surrounding Mann’s work has been generated by nonscientific interests who appear simply to dislike his conclusions and who are willing to intrude on the scientific process in a way that can inhibit scientists from publicizing their ideas. The proper avenues for resolution of the scientific controversy are the time-honored approaches that scientists have developed — publication, peer review, and debate.  Academics expect their research to be subjected to that scrutiny — and that scrutiny is ideally intense — but they also need to be able to interact with others in exploring initial thoughts, suspicions, and hypotheses without fear that every incomplete idea may be demanded by the government and examined out of context.  

In the abstract, scientific misconduct is a legitimate concern, but there still needs to be something that can be identified to justify an investigation beyond the fact that some research is controversial.  Otherwise, and as amici who filed briefs in the case correctly noted, “[s]eeking to avoid the stigma (not to mention legal costs) involved in a fraud investigation, professors would hesitate to research, publish, or even teach on potentially controversial subjects.”  And controversy is, in many ways, what drives scientific innovation fastest. 

Monday’s ruling by Judge Paul Peatross notes that “[w]hat the Attorney General suspects that Dr. Mann did that was false or fraudulent in obtaining funds from the Commonwealth is simply not stated….  [I]t is not clear what he did that was misleading, false or fraudulent in obtaining funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia.”  The complete ruling can be read here.   The Attorney General now has the opportunity to reframe his subpoena and articulate specific allegations if they exist. 

It is often noted that Galileo died the same year that Isaac Newton was born.  Newton, of course, would go on to invent a considerably better telescope design and to develop the theory of gravitation, which decisively confirmed the Copernican model of the solar system that Galileo espoused.  How our understanding of global climate change will develop in the years to come remains unclear.  But one thing is certain:  it will not advance at all if scientists are intimidated into suppressing their conclusions.

About Patrick Boucher

The author, Patrick M. Boucher, is a patent attorney living near Denver, Colorado and working at Marsh Fischmann & Breyfogle. He holds a Ph.D. in physics as well as a J.D. He is an active member of the American Physical Society, and is admitted to practice law in the states of Colorado and New York, as well as to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He is also a member of the Authors Guild and of the Colorado Authors League.