Monday, November 12, 2007

Galileo's Door

I was in Rome in September. We were walking from the Forum to the Pantheon when our guide, Francesca, commented almost as an aside about yet another Catholic church that we were passing. The door on the side of the church was the very door that Galileo Galilei had passed through when he was called by the Catholic Inquisition in 1633. This literally stopped me in my tracks. I had just seen the eyepiece of Galileo's telescope at the Science Museum in Florence.

Galileo was called to Rome to defend himself from charges of heresy. He had observed that the sun, and not the earth, was at the center of the solar system. The Catholic Church had objected to Galileo's science as early as 1616 but it was not until 1633 that he was forced to recant under a threat of death. By then, Galileo was an old man and very ill. To survive, he swore that the earth indeed was the center of the universe and that all of his prior teachings were in error. He was sentenced to house arrest in Florence for the rest of his life.

This story gives an extreme example of the reaction to any revolutionary new idea that threatens the status quo. At first, the church tried soft techniques to get Galileo to change. But when more of the Enlightened actually started listening to what Galileo had to say, and particularly when Galileo started to make the Pope look foolish, the Inquisition used all of its power to squelch his ideas.

How often does this still happen today? The church no longer has an Inquisition but the majority of people still reject revolutionary ideas as being "heretical, or crazy, or simply wrong. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if an idea hasn't been initially rejected, it probably isn't revolutionary. Modern physics provides many examples. Relativity Theory, the Big Bang, Quarks, and the duality of photons come to mind. Each was met with derision and skepticism. The authors of these ideas were probably not threatened with their lives but they were threatened with their livelihoods.

Why do revolutionary ideas upset us so much? One possible reason is that we need to remain in control. We have a mental model that explains how the world works. If that model is wrong, we are clearly out of control...and hence vulnerable. Another possibility is that that powerful individuals and groups are highly vested in the status quo, with their remaining in their positions of power.

Revolutionary ideas are never accepted without a fight. But at least we don't burn the idea's originator at the stake. But each one of these people has walked through his or her own form of Galileo's Door.

The human mind treats a new idea the same way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it.

- P.B. Medawar

(Photos: Galileo's Door, Painting of Galileo Inquisition from Wikipedia)

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