Saturday, February 15, 2014

Galileo Galilei

February 15 is the birthday of Galileo Galilei -- born this day in Pisa, Italy in 1564, four hundred fifty orbits of the earth around the sun ago.  Special thanks to my very good friend J. Y., originally of N. Z., for reminding me of this very important anniversary of Galileo's birth, and sending along this link to the Galileo birthday writeup in the Sydney Morning Herald by past President of the Astronomical Society of Victoria, Perry Vlahos.

Galileo, of course, was possessed of a tremendously curious and incisive mind, and a crucially important figure in the history of physics, astronomy, and science in general.  Perhaps one of the most important paradigm shifts he introduced, and the one which had the most profound impact upon the world, was his almost single-handed invention of the scientific method: the concept of using experiments and allowing the evidence to suggest the hypotheses and theories that explains the evidence, in marked contrast to the methods in use for centuries previous.

As Professors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner explain in their outstanding investigation of quantum physics entitled Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, Galileo pioneered a new approach that propelled human investigation forward in a way that had not been possible previously, when theories were deemed acceptable or not based on religious dogma:

The Church had to stop Galileo's call for independent thought. [ . . .] Found guilty of heresy by the Holy Inquisition, and given a tour of the torture chambers, Galileo recanted his claim of a sun-orbiting Earth.  For his last years, Galileo lived under house arrest -- a lesser penalty than that of another Copernican, Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake.
[. . .]
Galileo's ideas were obvious -- to him.   How could he convince others?  Rejecting Aristotle's teaching on the motion of matter was not a minor issue.  Aristotle's philosophy was an all-encompassing, Church-enshrined worldview.  Reject a part, and you appear to reject it all.
To compel agreement with his ideas, Galileo needed examples that conflicted with Aristotle's mechanics, but examples that conformed to his own ideas.  Looking around, he could see few such cases.  His solution: create them!
Galileo would contrive special clear-cut situations: "experiments."  An experiment tests a theoretical prediction.  This may seem an obvious approach, but in that day it was an original and profound idea.
[. . .]
Some faulted Galileo's experimental method.  Though the displayed facts could not be denied, Galileo's demonstrations were "merely contrived situations."  They could be ignored because they conflicted with the intuitively obvious nature of matter.  Moreover, Galileo's ideas had to be wrong because they conflicted with Aristotelian philosophy. 
Galileo had a far-reaching answer: Science should deal only with those matters that can be demonstrated.  Intuition and authority have no standing in science.  The only criterion for judgment in science is experimental demonstration.
Within a few decades, Galileo's approach was accepted with a vengeance.  Science progressed with a vigor never before seen.  25-26.
The authors go on to demonstrate that the results of the foundational experiments of quantum physics, while clearly going against "the intuitively obvious nature of matter" as well as the received wisdom and apparent "authority" of the classical physics that preceded them, create a paradigm shift as fundamental as that which Galileo and his successors accomplished in their day.

While quantum physics is now generally accepted, there are many other areas in which received wisdom and the reigning "authority" continues to try to trump the evidence, or even to suppress the evidence, in order to try to prevent the acceptance of paradigm-shifting new perspectives.  Because of this, the spirit of Galileo will always be necessary to enable mankind to honestly search for the truth, and to face the implications of the results of the evidence, no matter what that evidence appears to tell us.


Previous posts mentioning Galileo:

It might also be pointed out that without Galileo, there would probably have been no Sherlock Holmes and his version of the "scientific method," and without Sherlock Holmes, there would probably have been no Scooby Doo.

As the above-linked previous blog posts point out, there are many in the "establishment" today who like to invoke Galileo as a way of stifling the very kind of evidence-based dissent that Galileo stood for.    On the four hundred fiftieth anniversary of his birth, it is a good time to consider the spirit of following the evidence, rather than the dictums of the "authority" figures who want to quell dissent by their insistence that the matter is already "settled."