The dangerous dialogue
There are some persistent misunderstandings about the Italian physicist Galileo Galilei and his historic “argument” with the Catholic Church. After his trial for heresy in 1633, in which he was condemned to house arrest for the rest of his life, 69-year-old Galilei is said to have uttered the famous phrase: “And yet it moves.”
Galileo’s groundbreaking book is finally translated into Dutch – and it’s a good read
Almost four centuries have passed since the trial, and the idea has become generally accepted that Galilei was a true martyr of science, prosecuted by the Inquisition and, according to many historians, even tortured. Some say that it was not only Galilei who stood trial, but science in general.
In reality, Galilei was put under house arrest in his Tuscan villa, where he could spend the rest of his life (he died nine years later) in relative luxury. The subject of the trial, a book, was put on the infamous Index, the church’s list of forbidden books, from which it was only removed in 1835.
That “pagan” book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was originally written in Italian in 1632. Only now, after nearly 400 years, has it been translated into Dutch.
In Dialogue, Galilei introduced his “new” world view, with the earth moving and spinning around the sun – taking away the former status of the earth as centre of the universe. It was a clear rejection of the philosophy of Aristotle, which was, in Galilei’s time, the main theory on how nature worked.
“Above all, Galilei wrote his book in a very understandable manner, so that even the common man could understand his ideas,” says Hans van den Berg, who has translated the Dialogue into Dutch. “Maybe that was why the church was so concerned about it. Also, the original is in Italian and not in Latin, which made this book accessible for everyone in Italy who could read – and not only for academics and priests who understood Latin.”
Presumably it takes a background in science, not just linguistic expertise, to translate a book like this? “Yes, I trained as a scientist,” explains Van den Berg. He lectured for decades in mathematics at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands until he retired a few years ago. “In 2001, I started to learn Italian as a hobby, which led to training to become a professional translator.”
And what, according to Van den Berg, makes the Dialogue so special? “First of all, it’s the content: Galilei gives fierce opposition to the theory of Aristotle, who was at that time the Catholic Church’s ‘house philosopher’. The science in this book really was revolutionary. Galilei’s ideas about movement, speed and acceleration were totally new – and, most importantly, they were backed up by evidence, thanks to the many observations he made with his self-constructed telescopes.”
And the book is, says the Dutch translator, “astonishingly well written. Galilei limited the pure maths to a minimum. And, like the title says, he wrote in a highly polemical way. He presents his ideas during a fictional discussion between three people: Salviati, who shares Galilei’s point of view; Sagredo, a neutral moderator; and Simplicio, a dedicated follower of Aristotle.” As you might have guessed, simplicio means “simpleton” in Italian.
“As the discussion progresses, Salviati has no mercy with Simplicio’s arguments, and in some excerpts he just makes a fool of him,” continues Van den Berg. “It was this merciless style of writing that got Galilei into trouble. In the years before the publication of the Dialogue, he had quite a good relationship with Pope Urban VIII. So if he had written his ideas in a more conciliatory way, he might have avoided a trial – however, we can’t know for sure. Nevertheless, thanks to his polemical style, Galilei’s Dialogue remains one of the cornerstones of Italian literature – quite exceptional for a science book.”