Weighing the Words of Others on Gold Scales

"I remain much obliged to Your Lordship for your continued affection towards me and mine and I wish to have the opportunity to do likewise to you assuring you that you will find in me a very ready disposition to serve you out of respect for what you so merit and for the gratitude I owe you."50

Six weeks prior to the papal election, Cardinal Barberini, as he then was, had written these words to Galileo. Now he had been crowned with the tiara and dressed in papal vestments during a ceremony in which he had surprised everybody by prostrating himself on the floor of St Peter's before the altar and praying that God would end his life if his pontificate was anything but a blessing to the Church.

Galileo's own reaction to the news of the election of Maffeo Barberini can be judged from a congratulatory letter he sent to the new Pope's nephew, Francesco. Even allowing for the rhetorical exaggeration of the age, there is no doubt about the genuine enthusiasm:

"... how delightful it is for me to have whatever remains of my life, and how much less heavier than usual will death be at whatever moment it overtakes me: I will live most happy, the hope, up to now altogether buried, being revived to see the most unusual studies recalled from their long exile; and I will die content, having been alive at the most glorious success of the most loved and revered master that I had in the world, so that I would not be able to hope for nor desire other equal happiness."51

Galileo's re-kindled hope certainly was not unfounded. Young Francesco Barberini had just been made a member of the Accademia dei Lincei, and Urban VIII's first official action was to make his nephew a cardinal. Prince Cesi altered the rule about churchmen not being academicians for Francesco's sake. Other members of the Academy also stood high in the Pope's favour. One of these, Giovanni Ciampoli, was given the highly influential post of Papal Secretary and Privy Chamberlain. Suddenly Galileo had a number of contacts right inside the Church's hub of power.

But the appointment of his nephew Francesco was also the first sign of a new trait in Urban VIII Barberini. He certainly wanted to work for the glory of the Church, but at the same time he did a not insignificant job of concentrating wealth and office within his own family. The traces of this still survive in Rome today, and the family coat of arms with its three bees can be seen in many places. The principal monument is the generously proportioned Barberini Palace that contains Rome's National Gallery for older works or art.

As the years went by, the people of Rome, who were generally sceptical of papal power, became seriously annoyed. The worst thing of all was that Pope Urban removed the ancient bronze covering from the roof of the Pantheon, and recycled it on Bernini's lavish baroque baldachin over the Pope's altar in St. Peter's. As they said in the city: "What the Barbarians didn't do, the Barberinis did."

In the autumn Galileo's book came out, with its new dedication to Urban VIII, in which one of the more flowery passages went: "As we humbly bow down to your [Holiness'] feet, we pray you may continue to show favour to our studies with the well-disposed rays and strengthening warmth of your most goodly protection."

The text was in Italian, in contrast to Grassi's Balance, which was written in Latin. Galileo had hit upon a brilliant title, typical of his ever fertile talent as a polemicist: the book was called Il saggiatore - "The Assayer", the title of the office of the official controller of the purity of precious metals and the mixtures in alloys. The point being that assayers use weighing instruments which are much more accurate than normal, run-of-the-mill scales. They must use "gold-scales" for their careful calculations. Grassi's and Galileo's arguments were thus about to be given a truly accurate weighing!

The Assayer is a settling of scores with Grassi, alias Sarsi, regarding the nature of comets and their orbits. In this sense it is an unsuccessful work, as Galileo simply got the basic point about the essence of comets, wrong. He relied on his own ability to draw conclusions, and had never even observed comets properly through his telescope.

Comets did not fit into Galileo's ideal Copernican universe. They were unpredictable - and worse, if they really did move round the Sun, it was in those despicable elliptical orbits. Galileo did not want to hand any points to either BraheorKepler.Hewantedtobetheonetoformulatethefundamental characteristics of the construction of the universe.

But such an evaluation of The Assayer is too simplistic. The discussion about comets - which is witty, acute and occasionally malicious - is merely the springboard for a general discussion of the potential for a description of nature, rich in examples and with innumerable openings for new challenges. And beneath it all lurks the forbidden faith in the Copernican system, from which Galileo distances himself with an irony so subtle that it is impossible to catch him out:

"And since I could greatly fool myself in penetrating the true meaning of matters which by too great a margin go beyond the weakness of my brain, while leaving such determinations to the prudence of the masters of divinity, I will simply go on discussing these lower doctrines, declaring myself to be always prepared for every decree of superiors, despite whatever demonstration and experiment which would appear to be contrary."52

Grassi was made to feel like a cleric. Galileo carefully maintained the fiction that it was his pupil Mario Guiducci who had written Discourse on the Comets, and poured scorn on anyone who could think otherwise, people like "Lottario Sarsi, a completely unknown person" - the mis-spelling of the first name is perhaps a conscious word-play on the verb "lottare": to fight, wrestle.

Grassi had explained the title of his book The Astronomical and Philosophical Balance by saying that it was a reference to the constellation Libra, from which he believed one of the comets had appeared. Galileo claimed it wasmorelikelytohavecomefromScorpio, and that Grassi's bookwasthere-fore an "astronomical and philosophical scorpion", which aimed a whole barrage of stings at him.

"But" he says,

"it is my good fortune that I know the antidote and the remedies at hand for such stings! I will therefore break and rub that very scorpion on the wounds, where the poison reabsorbed by its own dead body will leave me free and healthy."53

Galileo maintains that he has retired from the public gaze because all his writings have been attacked and misunderstood, while others take the credit for all his discoveries; he is being "slandered, robbed and scorned", and his writings are refuted with "laughable and impossible notions". He expends a lot of righteous energy in demonstrating this.

After which he systematically tears "Sarsi's" text apart. As a polemicist Galileo stops at nothing. He consistently pretends that he has no inkling that Grassi is the real author of The Balance, and writes:

"[Sarsi] repeats certain things he claims to have understood from Father Orazio Grassi, his teacher, concerning my latest findings; I believe not a word of this, and am certain that this priest has never either said, thought or seen Sarsi write such fantasies, they are so far removed from any respect for the doctrines by which teaching is done at the Collegio, where Father Grassi is a professor (.. .)."54

Obviously the Jesuits reacted to such statements. No reader could however fail to notice that between the shafts of sarcasm the sickness-wracked Galileo, almost sixty-years-old, shone with original observations, acute inferences and thought-provoking questions. It was in this book that he formulated his belief in mathematics - or rather geometry - as the language ofnature. And he knew himself that this did not only apply to the regularities of cosmology, because he had the as yet unpublished revolutionary pendulum and free fall experiments from Padua up his sleeve, which he continued to develop during these years.

Related to his belief in geometry was his clear distinction between the fundamental and incidental characteristics of an object. The fundamental ones were exactly those that could be dealt with geometrically: shape, size, position, movement. But an object also has other traits which are interesting in themselves: colour, taste, smell. This latter group is different however because, according to Galileo, such characteristics are dependent upon someone sensing the object, and they can therefore be seen as fortuitous designations we associate with an object, merely "names" or "labels".

These speculations are leading towards the rudiments of an atomic theory. As with so many of Galileo's other ideas, this one was not new either. The notion that matter is built up of tiny, indivisible entities, goes back to Democritus in 400 B.C. But Galileo brings the idea in from the cold, and discovers that these phenomena, which we can so easily see and perceive in daily life, must be explained by means of something we cannot directly perceive or see. As regards light, there must be an "expansion and diffusion, rendering it capable of occupying immense spaces but its - I know not whether to say its subtlety, its rarity, its immateriality, or some other property which differs from all this and is nameless."55

Galileo wanted to get inside the phenomena, because they simply cannot be explained from our immediate sensual impressions. The idea of characteristics and atoms did not perhaps seem so obviously dangerous as his cosmological ideas had shown themselves to be. But Father Grassi, who of course was on the look out for exposed points for his counter-attack, noticed them.

In the first instance there was only one reader of The Assayer who really counted, and he was the one to whom the work had been hastily dedicated. Pope Urban VIII Barberini liked the book. He had nothing against sarcasm. At least, as long as it was not directed at him.

It is possible that Galileo's Roman friends in the circle around the Ac-cademia dei Lincei exaggerated the Pope's enthusiasm when they related that he had had The Assayer read aloud to him at mealtimes. But one of them probably did overstate things when he emphasised that now was the moment for Galileo to write down

"those concepts which up until now remain in your mind, I am sure that they would be received most gratefully by Our Lord [the Pope], who does not cease to admire your eminence in all matters and to retain intact for you that affection which he has had for you in times gone by."56

Certainly Urban remained a firm friend and admirer of Galileo's, even after The Assayer. He was himself interested and intelligent enough to value its scientific speculations, and the wordsmith in him had to admire Galileo's pungent wit. In the unspoken, but important, competition between the Accademia dei Lincei and the Collegio Romano for the position of Rome's leading institution in the scientific sphere, the Pope almost had to be counted as one of the Accademia's supporters.

But he was not a Copernican.

There was one particular passage in The Assayer that Urban VIII admired, both for its linguistic elegance and its content. Galileo had introduced an extraordinary fable about the inquiry into sources of sound.57 This told of an inquisitive man who, to his astonishment, discovered that similar sounds can have different origins: birdsong, the music of a flute, a bow drawn across violin strings, a man running his finger round the moistened edge of a glass. Finally, he finds a cicada, cannot work out how it makes its noise, examines it and at length discovers that it has some powerful chords under its thoracic shield. He decides to cut through these chords - if the cicada's song then stops, he will have found the source of the sound. But in his attempt to hold the insect firmly, he sticks a pin right through it and kills it. And thus "its voice vanishes with its life", and the man will never fully know the answer.

This fable has been extensively interpreted, including as an attack on Grassi's supposed "hard-handed" and inelegant method of reasoning. But it stirred Urban's heart because he felt it said something essential about all inquiry into nature: the deepest cause was in principle inaccessible to the human intellect. The ways of God were impenetrable. He had an infinite number of means at his disposal when it came to nature and its phenomena, and it was folly for man to claim that one particular explanation was absolutely true.

Urban VIII was therefore not especially fearful of Copernican theories. They might be of interest, plausible even - but they could never make claim to be the Truth, and therefore could not come into conflict with religion.

Galileo was of another persuasion. For him, the truth was one and indivisible, science and religion two sides of the same coin. But he well knew how Pope Urban thought - and he noted it for future use.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Swine Influenza

Swine Influenza

SWINE INFLUENZA frightening you? CONCERNED about the health implications? Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases! Stop The Swine Flu from Spreading. Follow the advice to keep your family and friends safe from this virus and not become another victim. These simple cost free guidelines will help you to protect yourself from the swine flu.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment