Brian May, best known as the guitarist from Queen, writes a sort of blog which he calls a "Soapbox".

If you don't know anything about Brian (or about Queen for that matter), you might be forgiven for assuming that a rock star's blog is likely to be a fairly thin gruel. That would be a mistake. Brian is amongst other things a PhD in astronomy, a passionate stereo photographer, a univeristy chancellor, and a generally brilliant, interested-in-everything lovely guy. As for Queen, well they were the smartest, most talented band in our history, whose tongue-in-both-cheeks humour confused the dead mass of critique into thinking they were frivolous. But the simple-minded always find the great frivolous, looking instead for a sign of what they consider to be intellectual cred, like certain key words, and standard positions on particular issues. What they would make of Mozart's lovely piece called "Lick My Arse" would be interesting to see.

Brian's current entry continues a discussion about Relativity. There's always lots of juicy physics stuff there, and that's not an oxymoron. But I have to take issue with him about the rolling out of the standard hagiography about Galileo and the Catholics. Brian says: "How terribly sad that he was incarcerated and mentally (and probably physically) abused by the Catholic Church. I believe they have now apologised." The story of what happened to Galileo has become a sort of turban myth, like the War on Terror - short on detail, and all the more melodramatic the less detail there is. If you actually read the full details of the Galilieo trial and the events leading up to it, it's pretty clear that the Catholics on many occasions offered him an out-clause, and he behaved like a self-righteous prat. Fundamentalism was being bandied about by both sides, in illiberal doses. 

Brian goes on: "For organised religion has been at the root of so much of the injustice and needless violence of the last two thousand years. Surely it is a basic human right of every person, to pursue his (sic) own private relationship with his God? And not try to force his views on his neighbour?" You know what he means, and of course nobody should be bullied or persecuted. But really this sort of historical analysis is about as accurate and as sophisticated as "poo bum wee". The thousands of innocent people tortured and killed for their beliefs that Brian mentions pale into utter insignificance next to the tens of millions suffering the same fate under the various atheistic fascist regimes of the last century, for starters. I don't care for attempts to point the finger of responsibility at religion or at anyone else, to be honest - I think stupid dumb fucks will always find reasons to be stupid dumb fucks. And atheists invented the bomb, although for sure loons of the religious persuasion would love to get their hands on it. So long as you have a big bad nasty thing to point the blame at, idiot individuals keep getting away with doing idiot things. 

Further while Martin Luther would enjoy tremendously Brian's attempt to turn religion into a Freudian, individualistic me-and-my-God thing, alas that again makes as much sense as asking politics to be only about what each man (or woman, Loretta) thinks should happen. We've tried that, each man or woman it turns out often enjoyed nothing more than cutting throats. On top of this the cosmologists within physics itself talk and act more like religious fundamentalists than many fundamentalists, and let's also not forget the basic fundamentalism of most of science itself in its belief in an 'objective world out there'. Out where? Why isn't it just here? And why do only scientists know how to access it? I'm sorry, I have no trouble accessing reality right here. 

I'm sorry, I see loons everywhere, in every sphere of life. 



  1. Actually Nick, while Galileo might have been a prat (most scientists are one way or another), and a flamboyant one at that (the Carl Sagan of his day) he was also interested in the truth about the world and the universe, and in this particular matter, he happened to be right.

    The Catholic Church at that stage remained unconvinced by the Renaissance and by new developments in science, and they were on the wrong side of history. (There's a nice set of documents online at Famous Trials at

    Catholic historians of course have an entirely different approach to this, but still it always comes down to whether the sun revolves around the earth, or vice versa, and who claimed what.

    As always, actual history is more interesting and complicated than fundamentalist interpretations of it - especially when it comes to Vatican politics - but it's a bit hard to absolve the Catholic Church for its institutional folly, and pin the blame on the victim.

    Sure Galileo folded (I would have too), and sure he was being optimistic trying to change the spots on this particular leopard, and sure he only spent a little time in the clink before moving to a small farmhouse, but I'm with Brian May on this (though maybe not his precise wording).

    They offered Galileo a lot of out clauses - provided he admitted he was wrong, didn't publish his work, and skulked in a corner - which doesn't seem much of an out to me, even if he'd been a shy recessive personality.

    There's a reason the Catholic church apologised to Galileo in 2000, and that's no urban myth. They were trying to get a four hundred year old monkey off their back (but typically many in the church thought it a mistake, the result of an old man's encroaching senility, and even now refuse to admit any error in relation to the man or the science).

    The Galileo affair, no matter how you cut it, was a big time boo boo, a bit like the way the Scopes trial did more for evolution than it did for fundamentalism in the States, even if Scopes copped a fine, set aside on appeal by a technicality.


    ps keep looking for the loons, they are indeed everywhere.

  2. Hi Dorothy!

    Well you see part of my background is as an engineer and philosopher of science, and the Galileo trial was standard fare. I'm not an apologist for either side, it's more that i think the debate is a straw man.

    The problem with reading the Galileo trial as an argument about the veracity of a collection of facts is that it makes history a pretty sterile exercise in epistemology. The real import of the Galileo trial for me was in the invention of a new type of proof and decision. Experiment rather than received authority. The Church wasn't so much reacting to the idea that this or that thing was happening in the heavens as they were challenging the idea that authority in human affairs could rest with an individual and their telescope, rather than with a group governed by a collection of appropriate delegations etc.

    History then shows that experimentation developed its own enormous institution of people verifying the veracity of facts from experiments like Galileo's. That's how experiment works, there's no such thing as a solitary experiment, there are only experiments within a network of other scientists who verify (or not) the results. So what we ended up with is like a hybrid of the two opposing fundamentalisms.


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