Today, Galileo Galilei has become something of a secular “martyr for science” due to his moral stance in the face of persecution. But in his time, Galileo faced unthinkable condemnation and adversity. We have considered several inspiring achievements and the exemplary men behind them, but in this chapter, we’ll take a look at a personal battle so epic it has arguably not been matched ever since.The story begins around:
In time, Galileo made many astonishing discoveries. He saw ridges and valleys on the surface of the moon and stars that were not visible to the naked eye. He realized that the milky way was actually comprised of stars, Jupiter had 4 moons, and he began to learn new and interesting things about the way the planets – including earth – moved through space.
At this point in history, a few other scientists had made similar observations, but it was Galileo who was beginning to put the pieces together and see what all this data implied. At the time, using an instrument that allowed for observation beyond the limits of the human senses was ground-breaking enough, but Galileo’s observations eventually led him to conclusions that would not only turn his own life upside down, but completely rock the foundations that his world had been built on.By:
To understand what happened next, we need to appreciate that Galileo was not just making scientific claims – he was challenging the conception of what lay at the center of the universe – literally. This was an epic battle between religious dogma and the emerging discoveries of the growing science of astronomy. The Catholic Church held that the Earth was at the center of creation, and according to scripture, if undermined, would seriously threaten their ideological dominance. Their geocentric worldview was not just about the position of heavenly bodies – it was a complex, all-encompassing vision of how the universe was put together and man’s rightful place in it.
When Galileo suggested that the Earth was not the center of everything, he was saying so much more: he was asserting his moral rights as a scientist over the religious rulers of the day, he was directly challenging biblical scripture, and he was suggesting something even more frightening: that man was actually nothing special in the grand scheme of things, and that in a complex universe, man was perhaps less significant than he would have liked.the story contained in Joshua:
Galileo continued to publish his findings, continued to speak out about what he knew was the truth, and continued to ask further questions that his intellect, and the scientific method, allowed him to answer. Copernicus had also faced opposition, but it was different: he proposed the theory of heliocentrism based on theoretical arguments and logic. Galileo, however, brought concrete evidence to the table: he devised a tool that could directly observe and quantify data that supported Copernicus’ initial conjectures.
To make matters worse, Galileo refused to back down. He claimed that the bible is not a scientific authority, and that his work should not be judged wrong because it contradicted bible passages. At the time, this would have been interpreted as breathtaking arrogance and sacrilege – almost akin to claiming that you knew better than God. The scientist was warned continually and in the strongest terms to cease his inquiries and to soften his claims.
Galileo’s insistence set off debate all across the world, and the controversy raged on. The fight was messier than it appears at first glance. Galileo made claims but also said that many of his observations were not conclusive, and there were in fact many scientific inconsistencies – which were seized by the church to discredit him. There was plenty of genuine counterevidence for heliocentrism at the time, and so even Galileo’s scientific peers were conflicted. The Galileo affair unfolded over decades – which is how long you would expect the complete restructuring of ideology to take! Some members of the church supported him while some scientists condemned him. An elaborate smear campaign of myths and rumors attacked him and his credibility in countless creative ways. His work set off a long, complex, and heavily polarizing shift in society that is, in some ways, still unfolding today.Eventually, in: not how science works, and in:
It's important to note that Galileo, essentially, did not triumph in his lifetime. He didn’t make some suitably compelling argument and best his enemies. But perhaps this is what makes his quiet determination all the more valuable – he held to it anyway. He fought bravely against ignorance and pressure but did eventually capitulate and recant his claims.
Historians now know that Galileo suffered immensely at the hands of his persecutors, who worked diligently to unravel and discredit everything we was trying so hard to create. Today, people marvel at “cancel culture” and how easy it is to derail a person’s entire career for saying the wrong thing. But this is just the tiniest fraction of what Galileo faced. Can you imagine living in a world where expressing your scientific findings leads to the highest authorities in the land denouncing you and condemning you to house arrest for almost a decade?
It took a long, long time for public opinion to change and for scientists gradually to realize the truth of Galileo’s claims. The shift took place slowly, as more and more data lent support to the only credible conclusion: the earth really did move around the sun, and many of the dozens of other claims Galileo had made had scientific value. It took a whopping 359 years for the church to acknowledge their mistake and wrongdoing formally, when Pope John Paul II apologized for the injustice of the Galileo affair.
Of course, by this time, the apology meant little – today, we live in the very world that the Catholic Church was seeking to prevent in suppressing Galileo’s claims, and now almost nobody holds the worldview they were trying to preserve. Today, our attitudes towards tradition and scientific innovation are exactly reversed – with thanks in part to Galileo’s influence.
It’s hard to comprehend the cultural and social implications of what unfolded around Galileo’s time, and there are few neat and easy accounts of his story. What we can see, however, is that Galileo was a man of singular resilience and grit. Many of us like to think of ourselves as courageous freethinkers, but are we really? How many of us are blindly accepting of what is considered obviously true today – ideas that will mystify and shame our descendants in 300 years’ time? In other words, how many Galileos do we have languishing in our midst right now? Do we have the wisdom to know who they are and the courage to stand with them? To perhaps even be them?
Galileo was a scientist, but he was more than that: he teaches us about the power and dignity of holding onto what you know is right, even in the face of significant resistance and condemnation. Galileo wasn’t exactly a moral crusader, however. He wasn’t arguing for his opinion. He frequently expressed uncertainty in some of his own theories and never claimed to be infallible. He never said, “I am 100% right, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Instead, his fight was for the freedom and entitlement to speak and to challenge the predominating worldview at the time. It was this, and not arrogance or unbridled conviction that allowed him to continue to speak, despite being suppressed at every turn.
In this way, he had something in common with others on our list – Sanders, Edison, and Beethoven, for example. They all had something within them that gave them an inner strength and gravitas. They set their course, they acted as they knew they must, and very little deterred them. Yes, Galileo did officially recant his views, but this does nothing to invalidate his decades of work towards the cause he knew in his conscience was worthwhile.
When we choose a path that is worthy, we often find that it is bigger than our critics, our enemies, our saboteurs. The right path will even be bigger than our own fears and self-doubt. Galileo teaches us that resilience can come from anchoring yourself to a mission in life that is bigger than you. Petty ego concerns, public pressure, fashion, and passing fears can all make us fickle and changeable, but if we have sunk our teeth into a goal that really matters, it is so much harder to shake us loose from it. In fact, we might even be inspired by any resistance we encounter, doubly convinced in the value of us pushing on despite it all.
If you want to be resilient, pick a worthy goal of the largest size you can imagine. Commit yourself to a path that you genuinely believe in, down to your bones. Going with the flow of other people’s opinions is easy, but it won’t make you resilient or robust. Being an authentic individual with your own moral and intellectual code is less easy, but it will fortify you and make any setback easier to endure.
Today, many people assume the story of Galileo is a simple one about science vs. religion, but it’s more than that – after all, Galileo remained a Catholic and man of faith all his life, despite being a dedicated scientist. He said, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." Galileo’s commitment was to the project of inquiry itself, to sense, reason, and intellect.
He was able to endure because he saw his project as going beyond his own ego and immediate interests. Like other noteworthy figures in history, he used his own will and intelligence to grasp the world around him, rather than have others decide what he should think and why. Galileo was able to speak against the church because he served something bigger than it; is there something in your life that you serve that is bigger than the political and historical period you inhabit?
"Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book whichever is before our eyes -- I mean the universe -- but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written." If you are, like Galileo was, busy with the work of reading the great book of the universe, then of course you are resilient – what could the petty squabbling and criticisms from others matter to you then?
Real world example:
Marilyn vos Savant was a real life genius and prodigy who held the Guinness world record for the highest IQ. She penned a famous magazine column called Ask Marilyn in which she answered readers’ tricky questions. One day, Marilyn was asked about the notoriously thorny Monty Hall problem, which was a probability puzzle that had stumped mathematicians for years. Marilyn gave her answer.
What followed was relentless criticism and mockery from all corners of academia. Learned people flocked to call her an idiot for not arriving at the then-popular interpretation, and she received thousands of letters saying the same thing: she was wrong.
It turns out that Marilyn was right. After years of name-calling, misogyny, and academic persecution, it gradually became clear that Marilyn had simply seen beyond the problem and solved it more elegantly than her persecutors could understand at the time. Fortunately for Marilyn, though, some of her fiercest critics did apologize, and she was vindicated.
Galileo Galilei’s lessons:
• Be true to yourself. Have faith in your own judgment and stick to your firmly held convictions, even if you have to do so alone. This will imbue you with enormous courage and resilience in the face of challenges, because you will believe in yourself.
• Be humble. Use your intellect and your reason to the best of your ability, but always be willing to learn more. Don’t boast about your conclusions but allow them to guide your convictions quietly from within. If you’re lost, stay curious and return to the faculties that you’re blessed with – keep asking questions and be brave enough to discover the answers.
• Realize that, sadly, you will not always be rewarded for your diligence and persistence. Instead, seek to find meaning and purpose in your work, whatever it is, so that it inspires you even if nobody else recognizes its value. Then, you will have tapped a well of strength that very few will be able to match!