Thursday, January 13, 2011

Badly-Written History

Sadly, lots of good history is ruined by bad history books. The more interesting the historical topic, the greater the chances that someone has written something rather ill-advised about it. A recent mathematics textbook offered the following sidebar:

Most people have heard of Galileo, a colorful Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pisa. The final part of his career centred on an epic battle with the Spanish Inquisition on the validity of the Copernican view of the solar system.

Read carefully, this paragraph offers a stunning paradox: Galileo, who lived in Italy and never set foot in Spain, could not have had any meaningful interaction with the Spanish Inquisition! The author clearly had some vague notion of a disagreement between Galileo and a religious institution, but failed to check for any real facts.

It is true that Galileo, despite his sincere belief in the Roman Catholic faith, did attack, not the faith, but rather the institution of the church. Despite his attacks on the church, however, Galileo was never jailed, never tortured, never executed. He never received any meaningful consequences for his actions.

The author of the math textbook ruined what could have been an interesting historical sidebar, and instead offers us a comedy of errors.