December 2009 - January 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Tried again

By Alan Saunders
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Well, at least nobody had to wear tights. We were all clad in a seemly manner – academic robes for most of us – when we stepped onto the stage and into a flashy, Renaissance-lite set curiously reminiscent of an amateur production of Kiss Me, Kate. We had an audience, too. It might have been a Monday night but around a thousand people filled the Clancy Auditorium of the University of New South Wales, with an overflow crowd watching on monitors. Justice, if it was justice, was seen to be done in a way very different from when Galileo was first hauled up before the Holy Inquisition in 1633.

The media love the calendar and this has been a big year for scientific anniversaries. Charles Darwin was the superstar, of course, and he cunningly got in first by being born in February. His bicentenary and the publication 150 years ago of The Origin of Species have been celebrated in books, articles, conferences (one in the town that bears his name), TV documentaries, plays and even a major motion picture (a bit tricky, selling the theory of natural selection as entertainment to an American audience).

The fortieth anniversary of the moon landing lacked the charm of antiquity but made up for it with a plentiful cast of survivors, including the reticent Neil Armstrong and the garrulous Buzz Aldrin. It had an Australian angle too: cue celebrations at Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, near Canberra, and Parkes Observatory, NSW.

And, talking about our lunar neighbour, 2009 has also been Galileo Galilei’s year, yet in his case we are simply celebrating something he did and, though he did it presumably alone and at dead of night, it was something of incalculable significance.

According to Galileo’s account, while teaching mathematics at the University of Padua, he heard about a new device from Holland and contrived a way to make one for himself. It was what we call a telescope. By 1 December 1609, he was able to train a 20x telescope on the moon and to observe for the first time that its surface was not crystalline and perfect, as prevailing orthodoxy required it to be, but rugged, mountainous and pitted with craters.

It ended in tears, of course, with a verdict of vehement suspicion of heresy, and that was why we were there on stage: to see whether the Inquisition got it right. The original trial, however, would have scarcely resembled what we were doing. No presumption of innocence, no defence counsel, no cross-examination: just the accused sitting humbly before the court with depositions and documents tabled (and in one case, tampered with). But we had to make it dramatic, so there I was on the stand as a witness for the prosecution: Father Tommaso Caccini.

I, like all my fellow performers, was participating in a series of celebrations staged in 146 countries during this, the International Year of Astronomy. Amateurs may have held star-gazing parties this year, but the professionals of the International Astronomical Union have been the real puppet masters and they’ve done a thorough job in organising a 24-hour webcast from observatories around the world, the Dark Skies program designed to raise awareness of light pollution, James Morrison’s Hot Stars, Cool Jazz and, inter alia, countless exhibitions at galleries and museums across the country. Oh, and a bunch of us strutting our stuff on stage at the old boy’s retrial.

In my capacity as Reverend Father, I tell the prosecutor (Anna Katzmann, SC) that on the fourth Sunday of Advent in 1614, I was preaching on a passage from the Book of Joshua, which describes the miracle with which God answered Joshua’s prayers by commanding the sun to stand still upon Gibeon. I explain to the court, as I had to my congregation, that this miracle was inconsistent with the views of the Polish cleric Nicolaus Copernicus, who in 1543 published his theory that the Earth, instead of standing motionless at the centre of the universe, revolves around the Sun and on its own axis.

But everybody says that the Sun comes up and goes down, even though we don’t believe it does. Couldn’t the biblical author simply have been talking about the appearance of things? In other words, could it not have been the Earth that stopped moving rather than the Sun? Galileo’s brief, Julian Burnside QC, tries that on me and I’m not having any of it. I may not be a mathematician, merely a Father of the Church and an Aristotelian philosopher, but even I know that if the Earth had been moving and suddenly stopped everyone would have fallen over.

This was the sort of mechanical argument that made Galileo initially suspicious of the heliocentric hypothesis. Then there was the apparent absence of stellar parallax. If you determine the location of a star and then do so again six months later (when the earth is supposed to have made the 300-million-kilometre journey to other side of the Sun) its position will appear to shift slightly against the more distant, ‘fixed’ stars. The tiny angle between the two measurements is called the parallax and in Galileo’s day nobody could find any sign of it.

Then along came the gift from Holland and everything visible in the lens was friendly to Copernicus: the Moon was as imperfect as the Earth, Venus had phases like the Moon and Jupiter had its own moons. This was why Galileo was drawn to Copernicus’ theory, although, as it turned out, the church he loved was not.

And what about the parallax? You could account for its absence by assuming a universe so much larger than the one you thought you’d been living in, such that the angle was too small to be detected. This turns out to be the case and it’s what links this year’s big scientific anniversaries. Galileo unseated us from our throne at the centre of the universe and set us loose in immeasurably huge spaces. Darwin demonstrated that, not only are we not at the centre of the universe, we’re not even anything special among the inhabitants of our own hunk of rock.

In the face of this chilly disenchantment, the moon landing was a piece of curiously good news. A few years ago, the environmentally minded husband of a very distinguished and no less environmentally minded Canadian novelist told me that he thought that famous shot of the earth from the moon banal. A photograph cannot be banal, though our thoughts about it – this is our home, which we must embrace and cherish for our children – certainly can. But there is nothing sentimental in reflecting that, though alone and nothing very special, we do, for the time being, live in a beautiful place.

As to the verdict on the man who helped bring us to the condition from which we could make these observations? Guilty as charged.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

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