There is no more famous incident in the history of science than the heresy trial through which Galileo was led to the nominal renunciation of his cherished doctrines. There is scarcely another incident that has been commented upon so variously. Each succeeding generation has put its own interpretation on it. The facts, however, have been but little questioned. It appears that in the year 1616 the church became at last aroused to the implications of the heliocentric doctrine of the universe. Apparently it seemed clear to the church authorities that the authors of the Bible believed the world to be immovably fixed at the centre of the universe. Such, indeed, would seem to be the natural inference from various familiar phrases of the Hebrew text, and what we now know of the status of Oriental science in antiquity gives full warrant to this interpretation. There is no reason to suppose that the conception of the subordinate place of the world in the solar system had ever so much as occurred, even as a vague speculation, to the authors of Genesis. In common with their contemporaries, they believed the earth to be the all-important body in the universe, and the sun a luminary placed in the sky for the sole purpose of giving light to the earth. There is nothing strange, nothing anomalous, in this view; it merely reflects the current notions of Oriental peoples in antiquity. What is strange and anomalous is the fact that the Oriental dreamings thus expressed could have been supposed to represent the acme of scientific knowledge. Yet such a hold had these writings taken upon the Western world that not even a Galileo dared contradict them openly; and when the church fathers gravely declared the heliocentric theory necessarily false, because contradictory to Scripture, there were probably few people in Christendom whose mental attitude would permit them justly to appreciate the humor of such a pronouncement. And, indeed, if here and there a man might have risen to such an appreciation, there were abundant reasons for the repression of the impulse, for there was nothing humorous about the response with which the authorities of the time were wont to meet the expression of iconoclastic opinions. The burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, in the year 1600, was, for example, an object-lesson well calculated to restrain the enthusiasm of other similarly minded teachers.

Doubtless it was such considerations that explained the relative silence of the champions of the Copernican theory, accounting for the otherwise inexplicable fact that about eighty years elapsed after the death of Copernicus himself before a single text-book expounded his theory. The text-book which then appeared, under date of 1622, was written by the famous Kepler, who perhaps was shielded in a measure from the papal consequences of such hardihood by the fact of residence in a Protestant country. Not that the Protestants of the time favored the heliocentric doctrine—we have already quoted Luther in an adverse sense—but of course it was characteristic of the Reformation temper to oppose any papal pronouncement, hence the ultramontane declaration of 1616 may indirectly have aided the doctrine which it attacked, by making that doctrine less obnoxious to Lutheran eyes. Be that as it may, the work of Kepler brought its author into no direct conflict with the authorities. But the result was quite different when, in 1632, Galileo at last broke silence and gave the world, under cover of the form of dialogue, an elaborate exposition of the Copernican theory. Galileo, it must be explained, had previously been warned to keep silent on the subject, hence his publication doubly offended the authorities. To be sure, he could reply that his dialogue introduced a champion of the Ptolemaic system to dispute with the upholder of the opposite view, and that, both views being presented with full array of argument, the reader was left to reach a verdict for himself, the author having nowhere pointedly expressed an opinion. But such an argument, of course, was specious, for no one who read the dialogue could be in doubt as to the opinion of the author. Moreover, it was hinted that Simplicio, the character who upheld the Ptolemaic doctrine and who was everywhere worsted in the argument, was intended to represent the pope himself—a suggestion which probably did no good to Galileo's cause.

The character of Galileo's artistic presentation may best be judged from an example, illustrating the vigorous assault of Salviati, the champion of the new theory, and the feeble retorts of his conservative antagonist: