© 2014 Valerie Dionne

Dan Cohen on “Galileo and the Essence of Modern Science” by Andrew Jones

On a Wednesday evening in March, Professor Dan Cohen hosted a lecture titled, “Galileo and the Essence of Science”.  A crowd of around thirty people took their seats in a Lovejoy classroom, awaiting Mr. Cohen—a man who seems to find everything interesting.  However, considering that his talk would be about philosophy, I couldn’t help but contemplate what dry, scientific information I would take away from the talk; Galileo has the effect of boring some, to be frank.  His passion and extensive knowledge, about not only Galileo and his groundbreaking tendencies but also Aristotle—a man Galileo himself looked up to during the early stages of his life—led me to find the topic more fascinating.  Cohen’s zeal in everything Galilean inspired me to analyze Galileo in more depth and led me to some interesting parallels between the concept of censorship and scientific ingenuity.

During the address, Cohen made it clear from the beginning that, during the 17th century, Aristotle was considered to be the man.  During that time the study of the natural world was considered to be completely under the domain of Aristotle—the whole scientific worldview was, more or less, Aristotelian.  Aristotle and his supporters believed in a stable understanding of the world, and a human’s place in it.  For instance, Aristotelian science makes a clear distinction between form and matter. Aristotle believed that matter comes in 4 different types of elements: earth, air, fire and water.  These elements are generated by two pairs of the opposites (e.j. hot mixed with cold; wet mixed with dry).   Aristotle was primarily concerned about all matters of truth and finding the essential knowledge behind what something is, and many considered his teachings as accurate.

This is where Cohen’s talk picked up steam: the emergence of Galileo.  Galileo, another independently minded scholar, was one of the first to challenge Aristotle’s laws and one of the first to push the scientific envelope by raising more questions concerning the validity of a hypothesis.  For example, on the concept of projectile motion, Aristotle pondered the question of what keeps a ball in motion after it leaves one’s hand. In true maverick spirit, upon looking at the same subject of projectile motion, Galileo asked an entirely different question than Aristotle, “what causes the throwing rock to stop, after one puts it into motion?”  This different interpretation of the question by Galileo, led to concepts of momentum, laws of conservation, and inertia—concepts that Aristotle would not recognize.  Additionally, Galileo believed that there should be a study of the accidents that permeate the world. This view staunchly opposes Aristotle, who thought that knowing information about the accidents in the world is superfluous, unnecessary—Aristotle was just concerned about knowing the fundamental truth.  That being said, in terms of motion, Galileo found ways to get past the air imperfections that consequently slow down motion, since these imperfections are very much a part of the world.  When Galileo first arrived in the scientific community, form versus matter and essence versus accident were conceptual vocabularies of physics. By the time he left, the scientific community was thinking in terms of space and time and mass and momentum.  It really is hard to fathom how extraordinary an accomplishment that was.

I offer the question, to what extent does censorship withhold potentially ingenious ideas, especially scientific explanations?  When he was relevant, Galileo encountered individuals attempting to thwart his principles.  His belief in Heliocentrism (originally presented into society by the Copernicus, a Catholic monk), or the model in which the Earth and surrounding planets revolve around a stationary Sun, led him to banishment from the Church.  The Church’s belief was that the earth was the center of God’s salvific work, therefore anything going against their belief was wrong—it was also the belief of the Church that anyone who challenged the Church’s ideology should be suppressed.  This knowledge of Galileo’s censorship makes me respect that man even more.  He had questions for just about everything, and his inquiries were rightfully justified.  Before him, no one had bothered to ask the question, “what causes the ball to stop moving?” Why was this?  Because people were hardwired not to ask such unnecessary questions—well, Galileo did not follow that script.  His consequence of not following script led him to being credited with ushering in new conceptions of science.  We should applaud Galileo for his courage in the face of suppression.  I guess it never hurts to be the guy to ask, “But why?”