The silencing and punishment of Galileo toward the end of a life devoted to scientific inquiry was an event of profound significance for our cultural history. Its full understanding requires much more than an assumption of inevitable conflict between science and religion — a cliché which originated largely from the case of Galileo that it is widely used to explain. If any simple explanation existed, it would rather be in terms of the customary ruthlessness of societal authority in suppressing minority opinion, and in Galileo’s case with Aristotelianism rather than Christianity in authority. To understand the fate of Galileo requires knowledge of events throughout his whole career coupled with that sense of inevitable outcome, hidden from the actors, that authors of classical Greek tragedy gave to its spectators.
Those spectators were kept posted by the chorus, whose role I must undertake to play, since in a short book it is not possible to deal in detail with more than a single theme in Galileo’s multiple activities. I have chosen as the focal point Galileo’s condemnation by the Roman Inquisition in 1633, with his biography as the background. That choice entails certain limitations. There is not room to justify statements about technicalities of Galileo’s science, even when they depart from currently received scholarly opinion; all I can do is to assure the reader that they are based on documentation more extensive than general histories of science have used.