Friday, June 22, 2018


The story here is that, in 1616, the Church condemned the sun-centered theory of the solar system as contrary to scripture. Galileo Galilei was told by the Church to abandon his view of a solar system with the sun at the center. He was tried and convicted of proclaiming a view contrary to religious doctrine, and was sentenced to house arrest, under which he remained for the last decade of his life. Galileo was exonerated by the Church in 1992. Here we discuss what the scientific issues were that led to this conflict, how Galileo came to conclude that the sun is at the center of the solar system, and how early views of the motion of the planets were modified due to scientific evidence and reasoning.

This topic was chosen as the first major topic for the following reasons:

First, this was one of the very early examples of an encounter between science and "public policy." Although it is actually an encounter between science and "Church policy", it has many of the characteristics of later encounters between science and more secular public policy. In particular what we see in this story is a clash between science and policy coming from a realm that is outside of the main realm of the scientific endeavor.

Second, this topic marks the beginnings of a major transformation in the development of the modern scientific enterprise, motivated by the search for "the truth" about the motion of the planets in the solar system. Within this story we see the essence of the difference between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge, most importantly how the scientific method is applied to measurements in an effort to discern what the process is that resulted in those observations.

Finally, exploring this encounter brings out a surprising similarity with science and policy issues that we are confronted with today. Although the science of the 21st Century is more complex, and society is dealing with issues that would have been hard to imagine in the 1600s, analogous clashes between science and policy are still with us, now more than ever.