Historical Expertise

And yet the Legend Lives

There is no evidence that Galileo ever said “eppur si muove.”

Scott Huler is right to take the North Carolina legislature to task for trying to legislate whether or not ocean levels are rising: NC Considers Making Sea Level Rise Illegal. Yet like President Obama before him, Huler reveals his own ignorance when he invokes another tired historical myth. Contrary to what Huler would like, there is no evidence that Galileo ever uttered the words “eppur si muove” (corrected the typo—changed “is” to “si”).

No information on whether the scientists on the panel, like Galileo, have stamped their feet and muttered “And yet it rises!” But there’s no doubt that NC’s legislative inquisitors will be classified along with Galileo’s papal persecutors and their own forebears who outlawed interracial marriage, as on the wrong side of history.

The earliest record of Galileo purportedly saying “And yet it moves” (as “eppur si muove” is often translated) occurred in Giuseppe Baretti’s Italian Library, in 1757. And yet it lives, like the mythical flat earth.

Scott Huler’s profile at Scientific American.

We might want to be lenient on President Obama when he referred to the flat earth. After all, he doesn’t pretend to have any historical or scientific expertise. Huler, by contrast, claims to explore “science, culture, and the relationship between the two.” We can and should expect more from him. An internet search would have turned up the Italian wikipedia page and the English wikipedia page as well as a number of other pages that dispel this myth.

Huler undermines his own credibility and does a disservice to Scientific American when he appeals to an easily refuted historical myth.

Postscript: North Carolina is not the first state to legislate the natural world. Both New Mexico and Illinois have legislated Pluto back into a planet.

[Reposted at PACHS.]

6 replies on “And yet the Legend Lives”

As you say — a simple Wikipedia search yields the information that as early as 1643 or 1645 ( the phrase “eppur si muove” was identified with Galileo in a painting. That’s only a decade or so after his trial. So does your failing to note that — and instead citing only the 1757 date — somehow undermine your credibility? Does the fact that you misspelled the Italian in your first quotation? Does your scornful, scolding tone? According to the page I cite above, no less a source than Stephen Hawking cites historians who believe Galileo uttered the phrase. Does implying that Stephen Hawking can’t be bothered to distinguish between myth and reported reality regarding an event that occurred in the 1630s undermine his credibility, or does it undermine yours, for decrying my failure and ignoring his?

More, in what way did I appeal to the myth? I cited it — with, I certainly thought, the understanding of all reasonable readers that this longstanding, oft-told tale is regarded as possibly and even probably apocryphal but certainly, wonderfully, symbolic. That is, it does the job that myths are supposed to do — it expresses the essence of a story quickly and purely.

In his beautiful, near perfect essay “Agincourt and After,” Roger Angell describes the events of the 1975 World Series through allusions to Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” Did Angell fail his readers by not noting that though the battle of Agincourt was real, we have no trustworthy estimates of the dead on each side? That by quoting “Crispin Crispian,” Angell is citing words that likely the actual Henry never said? Of course not. The story — about a smaller English army defeating a larger French one in an unforgettable battle that staggers the imagination, through heroics and inspiration — perfectly symbolized the lovely back-and-forth of the breathtaking 1975 classic. Comparison between the real battle and Shakespeare’s storytelling utterly misses the point.

Just so with Galileo. His story — again, I would have thought widely understood to be at least much mythologized rather than pure reported nonfiction, given that it’s almost 400 years old — perfectly expresses the fury of frustrated scientists facing pigheaded denial from the ignorant who are attempting to control them. Does it really do a disservice to readers that I trusted them to understand that?

I truly don’t get your scornful tone. If you’re trying to protect the world from the Galileo story, you’re too late. The world likes the story. The story works. The world doesn’t think someone live Tweeted the trial and Galileo’s words were quoted by three reliable sources. The world understands this, or anyhow I give them credit for understanding it. If we’re going to talk about disservices, I think you do your readers — and mine — a disservice by imagining them incapable of that understanding.

Dear Scott,

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post. In looking back over it, I agree, the tone was harsher than it should have been. You raise some good points that merit further discussion. I look forward to taking some time respond to your comments.

Gracefully said. And I will look forward to your thoughts. I remember hearing the Galileo story for the first time at the University of Sussex in 1979-1980 in a history of science class that taught me about Hermes Trismegistus and all sorts of other ur-science beliefs. The professor shared the story, but I don’t recall his ever going into any detail about its pure factual basis. We were studying, after all, a time when much of the world was illiterate and believed in alchemy; factual reality was, he might have said, still being born, and a certain amount of doubt went without mention. It was part of the donnee. Anyhow, I’ve never thought it terribly important whether Galileo said exactly that, was misquoted (“Don’t forget! I’m moving!”), or simply serves as center of an almost perfect just-so story. I just like the story. All best.

Ha. My very first History essay as a Lancaster undergraduate was on the significance of the Hermetic tradition for the Sci. Rev.

Avoided “Sci Rev” but went from the Corpus, through the neo-Platonists, some ref to representation in religious art, and so to alchemy, Ficino, the Ren.Platonists, Dee, Casaubon, Harvey, Newton, etc. 80 footnotes, 6 or so languages. Lecturer gobsmacked. A+++

Said I should write my own question. Harvey — relative importance of Aristotelianism, Galenism, Platonism and mechanism. Analysis of all his Latin texts. He said he couldn’t mark it, and why didn’t I submit it to a journal. I said, “It’s just a first-year essay.”

I stopped going to his class or writing essays. That was the only piece of work on Hist.Med. I did until I went to Oxford in 1979.