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Will the truth finally set Galileo free? Add to ...

Tough beans for Cosmas Indicopleustes, virtually no one remembers him.

Yet if it had actually been true that marquee medieval Christian writers and philosophers taught that the Earth was flat, then Cosmas - his name means "who travelled to India" - should have remained on the tip of humanity's tongue.

The sixth-century Greek merchant, monk and traveller wrote a treatise on a Bible-based cosmology that placed the Earth as a tableland or plateau at the bottom of the universe.

The important thing about him, however, is that, between the fall of Rome and the voyage of Columbus, he and the fourth-century church father Lactantius are the only two major scholars who proclaimed the Earth to be flat, Lesley Cormack, Simon Fraser University's dean of arts and social sciences, says in a collection of essays by Canadian, British and U.S. scholars debunking 25 myths about religion and science.

Every major Greek geographical thinker, all the major Roman commentators, virtually all the popular vernacular writers (Dante, Chaucer, Jean de Mandeville) and giants of theology (Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas) agreed the world was round, Prof. Cormack writes in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.

So how come the tale of medieval-based flatness?

Prof. Cormack says it was largely the invention of 19th-century scholars, many of them American, promoting a scientific and rational view of the world that, according to them, the Roman Catholic Church had suppressed until Columbus's voyage across the Atlantic ended in the Western hemisphere and not by falling off the edge of the world, thus ushering in modernity and America.

Galileo Goes to Jail, edited by University of Wisconsin's Ronald Numbers, a professor of science and medicine history, is the product of a Harvard conference funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which donates millions of dollars for the exploration of what it calls "life's biggest questions."

Among other hoary shibboleths, the book puts the boot to beliefs that the medieval church prohibited human dissection; that Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for advocating the Copernican view of the Earth revolving around the sun rather than the other way around; that René Descartes ( "I think, therefore I am") originated the mind-body distinction, and that Einstein believed in a personal God.

Dennis Danielson, a professor of English at University of B.C., takes on the notion that Copernicanism, by removing Earth from the centre of the universe, also demoted humans from the centre of the cosmos.

While it is true, writes Prof. Danielson, that Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century Polish astronomer, would "not waste time" on "idle talkers" who cited the Bible's apparent references to a fixed Earth and moving sun, he came up with a nifty rhetorical trick to maintain Earth's human inhabitants as the cosmological apples of God's eye.

He enhanced the status of the central sun by envisioning it as a throne, but at the same time promoted the Earth to the status of a "star" that "moves among the planets as one of them."

"It was a remarkable feat," writes Prof. Danielson. "Copernicus thus simultaneously enhanced the cosmic status of both Earth and sun. For Earth to be raised up out of what were then considered 'the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world'" - shades of Cosmas Indicopleustes - "can't be seriously interpreted as a demotion."

As for the imprisonment and torture of Italian astronomer Galileo on a verdict of "vehement suspicion of heresy" for supporting Copernicus's view of the cosmos - it's totally bogus history, says University of Nevada philosopher Maurice Finocchiaro.

It's bogus history, he writes, that stems from the misreading of a very ambiguous sentencing document.

Although the document ordered imprisonment, evidence emerging centuries later from other documents strongly indicates the church Inquisition never carried it out; likewise a careful examination of both the Inquisition's rules of procedure and the minutes of his interrogation provide no evidence of torture but only that he was questioned under "the threat of torture."

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