30 July 2020

We Are At the Moment of Galileo's Trial, Making the Choice Between Science or Superstition, Progress or Stagnation

The 30 Years' War was still nearly a decade away from resolution in 1642. That was a religious war in Europe between Protestants and Catholics and still other Protestants that left millions of Europeans dead, a war that killed 40% of the population in some regions. At that point you'd do well to explain the Protestant faith as a destructive force in history, a tragedy unleashed a century earlier by Martin Luther. As it turns out, it was more complicated than that.

In 1642, Galileo died and Isaac Newton was born. It's easy to see that now as a year in which power in Europe shifted from the Mediterranean to northern Europe.

Galileo was a genius put under house arrest by the Catholic Church because he argued that the earth orbits the sun, one of the first to use a telescope to look into space at wonders like the moon.

Newton was a genius who explained gravity and the laws of motion. Newton was an Enlightenment philosopher (his one of the minds that defined the Enlightenment) working in a country that had broken away from the Catholic Church. In England, he was free to explain the world without the approval of popes.

After 1642, Italy lost its dominance (although to this day people visit it to see the wonder it was during Galileo's time - St. Peter's Basilica, among other wonders, created only decades before Galileo was born) and Britain grew in power and influence to become the largest empire in history, eventually ruling over nearly a quarter of the world's population and land.

A community that aligns itself with science can go to the moon. In a community that rejects science, you can get in trouble just for looking at the moon.

Which brings me to the United States today, the country that arguably became the world's most powerful as the British Empire began to wane from its peak before World War I. The US has partly come to power because of its great universities, public schools and corporations and partly because as Europe was devastated by two world wars, many of its best and brightest chose to come to the US to study and work. In the last decade, the US has dominated in Nobel Prize winners and about half of those Nobel Prize winners were born and raised outside the US.

We are now at the moment of Galileo's trial. This week Trump retweeted a video starring a woman arguing that masks don't slow the spread of COVID. She also warns about alien DNA and demon semen. We are literally at a point in history in which membership in the Republican Party requires a belief in conspiracy theories and a rejection of science. The GOP doesn't even offer anything remotely as beautiful as St. Peter's basilica in return for the rejection of science; the Italians of Galileo's time had the David to gaze at in wonder and we have the Donald to gape at in horror.

It is no trivial matter to choose superstition over science. Italy went from home to the Renaissance (the place where the progress of the Greeks and Romans that had been interrupted for centuries by the Dark Ages began again) to an also-ran, a country that to this day suffers from high levels of corruption and incomes that are about 40% lower than those in northern Europe.

Four years ago, I was eating lunch with a robotics engineer from Italy. He said, "I kind of don't want Trump to win but I also kind of want him to win."
Thrown, all I could think to ask was, "Why?"
"Because everyone thinks we Italians were crazy to elect Berlusconi. If you elect Trump, no one remembers how stupid we Italians were. You will make the world forget that."

We don't have popes making the decision about whether or not we are the place where the next Newton is born or the last Galileo worked. Here it is the people making that choice. While the choice we make to trust in science or conspiracy theories won't make the world forget how Italy derailed its wondrous Renaissance progress, it could easily remind the world of that derailment, another golden age derailed by a rejection of science.

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