In Vienna’s 13th district stands a beautiful Jugendstil building, the Galileihof. Designed by and built by Emil Reitmann in 1905, the building appears to have been renovated not long ago.
Vienna is strangely committed to Galileo. In addition to the Galileihof, on the other side of town is the Galileigasse, which has a beautiful relief showing Galileo, the leaning tower of Pisa, and both Jupiter and Saturn with their respective satellites.
A couple nights ago Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment that followed “Jake Byrd” at last fall’s Flat Earth Conference in Dallas. In true “Jake Byrd” fashion, he is quick witted and irreverent. But I am not particularly interested in Byrd’s performance or the content of the segment itself.1 I am more interested in Jimmy Kimmel’s opening comments:
Today’s a notable day for our galaxy. On this date back in 1610 Galileo, you know the guy from the Queen song, Galileo discovered that the universe does not revolve around the earth, on this day. And yet there are many people who not only do they still believe that the earth is the center of the universe, many of those same people believe the earth is flat, like a tortilla. They’re called “Flat Earthers” and they have conventions, and talks and shirts and mugs, the whole deal….”
Hmmm. I suppose Jimmy Kimmel is referring to Galileo’s observations on January 7, 1610, when he first saw three bright spots in a line near Jupiter. As he tracked the bright spots over a number of subsequent nights (and noticed a fourth), he concluded that they were moons orbiting Jupiter.
I am impressed that Jimmy Kimmel linked the Jake Byrd segment to what is an obscure little bit of trivia about Galileo, though he had to work to get from center of the universe to flat earth.2 I am less impressed with the whole “discovered that the universe does not revolve around the earth” bit, but baby steps.
Historians of science might think Galileo’s observations are anything but obscure trivia, but they would be wrong. Even the nerdy, NPR-listening crowd is largely ignorant of such minutia. Sure, they can tell you who Galileo was and what they think he did, generally with some historical accuracy, but the date of his initial observations of the moons of Jupiter is beyond the scope of their concern. So props to the writers on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. ↩
Kanye West’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live took an unexpected turn when West invoked Galileo, implying that they were both misunderstood geniuses who wouldn’t be silenced by bullies telling them what to think. West was responding to Kimmel, who had asked about West’s views on the president. I’m not interested West’s opinions about the president. I am, however, fascinated by his use of history.
In a long, meandering reply that didn’t actually answer Kimmel’s almost question—“Do you like…? Do you think he is a good president?”—West seemed to be saying that he, West, was a free thinker and that he would not be told by anybody what to think. A minute or two into his reply, West enlisted Galileo as predecessor and partner in resisting the thought police and societal oppression:
[West] Right or wrong or even if I changed my mind about it or thought about it more, which I’m not saying I did, just place a thought out there that everyone’s not thinking sometimes. Galileo, they wanted to chop his head off for saying that…the earth uh that, what did he say?, the the the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa …. So when you have modern, futuristic ….
[Kimmel] But the sun…but…but the sun…
[West] I’m not concerned about specifics sir.
Here’s the audio of that portion, if you want to hear it:
Wow. Let’s pause for a moment and process West’s hesitation. He stumbled over whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth. That’s not history. That’s not science. That’s just basic life. So basic, in fact, that I can’t excuse West’s uncertainty as a nervous misstep.
Invoking Galileo as some martyr for free and rational thinking who stood up to the dogmatic, oppressive Church that wanted to execute him is nothing new. But usually people who conjure up the ghost of Galileo know that Galileo espoused and argued vigorously for the Copernican, heliocentric system, the model in which the earth revolves around the sun. And while we no longer think the sun is stationary, we still accept today the core features of the Copernican system as valid and verifiable (as Kimmel seemed to be fumbling towards saying). And usually people who invoke Galileo do so because, they typically claim, they are concerned about the specifics. Galileo got it right, as the evidence we have today demonstrates. Those specifics usually matter.
But as West says, the specifics don’t matter to him. History, after all, is holding “us back as a race of beings:”
I think people focus too much on the past and focus too much on regret. Even like when you deal with schools, you take like my slave idea. My my point is I’ve heard of history class. I’ve never heard of a class that breaks down how you, ya know, balance a checkbook or how you control your finances, which uh my father never taught me that, and I’ve never heard of a future class. So they keep us so focused on history that we start to believe that it actually repeats itself and we become overly traditional and we can’t advance as a race of beings. We get too caught up in the past and what everyone’s saying and what everyone’s tweeting ….
I have a different idea here, one I’m going to place out there even if everyone’s not thinking it: History does matter. And paying attention in history class, not just hearing “of history class” but listing in history class, matters. And history classes are not the problem. Focusing on history doesn’t convince us that history “actually repeats itself” and prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” No, ignoring history, thinking history and historical facts are infinitely malleable or that the specifics don’t matter, that’s the danger that prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” Such willful ignorance, such open rejection of history empowers factions in society to “become overly traditional,” because once you deny history, society can and will continually make up whatever tradition that suits its immediate needs. Winston’s dystopian future will become our present:
All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.
History matters, as West instinctively realizes in his use (and abuse) of it to validate and justify his own position, because of the specifics. Once we lose the details, the historical facts and the evidence, then we’re just making stuff up.
If for some reason you want to watch more of the interview, this search should produce a link to the YouTube video.
Unlike West’s response, Kimmel’s question about the president was anything but unexpected. ↩
West said he was going to answer the question Kimmel was going to ask but didn’t, the question about liking the president. ↩
I.e., West’s ideas and opinions about the president. ↩
The irony of his having just deployed one of the more famous episodes in Western history to support him and his position seems to have been lost on West. ↩
Yes, other classes matter too. And yes, West is right, classes on basic economics and finances are worthwhile (and offered in many schools and colleges). ↩
I need to point out that I have no idea what West means by “advance as a race of beings,” especially the retro–1950s, invaders from another planet “race of beings” bit. ↩
In a conversation recently, a student commented something like, “At first I couldn’t recall the title of Biagioli’s book. All I could think of was Galileo Courtesan.” His remark prompted me to wonder what would scholarship look like if written as mid–20th-century pulp fiction. Maybe something like this:
I would give anything to stumble across a book like this in some used bookstore. Does anybody know of trashy pulp fiction that centers on a significant person from the history of science? Anyone?
While not an exact quotation, it’s close enough. I should add, this was (and still is) a smart student. ↩
“Science Will Prevail,” Anzar Abbas reassures readers in his recent op-ed. Although the Trump administration “wants to ignore facts and instead believe whatever makes it feel most comfortable,” he is confident that “no matter what an ignorant administration may throw at science and reason, it will prevail. It always has.” To make his case, Abbas surveys key episodes when “ignorance of science and reason” impeded science but ultimately lost out to reason, evidence, and scientific facts. Unfortunately, Abbas ignores facts and believes what makes him feel most comfortable, inviting the same criticism he levels at the Trump administration.
At the heart of Abbas’s op-ed is a story about Copernicus fearing persecution by the Church for his heliocentric theory:
Copernicus knew the Church would not tolerate his work. He knew that he lived in a Europe that would never believe the Earth belonged anywhere but the center of the universe. He knew the persecution he would face if he ever tried to remove Earth from where the Church believed it to be.
We don’t talk as much about the ignorance of the Church anymore, though there was plenty. We don’t talk as much about the resistance that Copernicus faced.
Scientists and science boosters believe this old chestnut because, well, it makes them feel comfortable. But to believe and to traffic in this story requires that you ignore facts.
There is no evidence that Copernicus worried that the Church would condemn him and his work. There is, however, Copernicus’s dedication in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to no less a Church figure than the Pope, Pope Paul III. Copernicus credits other members of the Church for having urged him to publish his work: Nicholas Schönberg, the Cardinal of Capua, and Tiedemann Giese, the Bishop of Chelmno.
Copernicus did worry about resistance to his theory, as he mentions in the opening lines of his preface, but he doesn’t single out the Church. Instead, he worries about ignorant people who in referring to Scriptures will distort the sacred texts. The Church found Copernicus’s so unremarkable that it didn’t take any official until 1616 when it placed De revolutionizes on the Index of Forbidden Books until it was corrected.
This purported conflict between Copernicus and the Church is largely a fiction, fabricated by pro-science, anti-church polemicists in the 19th century and repeated in lightly edited form for the past 150 years. And even a quick review of historical scholarship will expose it as a fiction.
Scientists’ cavalier disregard for facts, evidence, and reason outside of the sciences reflects their own “unrestrained, unreasonable and willful ignorance,” and makes it difficult to take their complaints seriously. I agree, Abbas, a 21st century scholar ignoring basic truths is appalling. Science might prevail one day, but only if scientists and their boosters stop ignoring facts.
To be clear, I am not defending the Trump administration. I am, rather, pointing out how people like Abbas undermine their own efforts by demonstrating an almost pathological disregard for facts outside the sciences and a dogmatic adherence to myths that make them feel good. We lose all moral authority if in calling out the Trump administration’s (and before that the Bush administration’s) transgressions we commit all those same sins. ↩
According to his LinkedIn account, Abbas is a PhD student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering “studying functional connectivity in the brain in the Keilholz MIND Lab.” He is also the president of Emory Scicomm, “a group of students who are passionate about communicating science to the public.” So he is both a scientist and a science booster. ↩
Andreas Osiander in writing his well known Ad lectorem might have worried about how people would react to the Copernicus’s book, but those are his own anxieties and concerns rather than Copernicus’s. ↩