Little things matter – for want of a semicolon.

The Prof is back. A couple of years back Professor Christopher M. Graney, known to his friends as Chris, wrote a highly informative guest post for The Renaissance Mathematicus defending the honour of Tyco Brahe against his ignorant modern critics. In the mean time The Renaissance Mathematics was able to lure him into coming all the way to Middle Franconia, from the depths of Kentucky, to entertain the locals with a couple of lectures on Early Modern telescope images, Airy discs and how this all applies to Galileo Galilei’s and Simon Marius’ interpretations of the stars that they saw through their telescopes in 1609-10, stirring stuff I can tell you. You can read all about it in his forthcoming book, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo (forthcoming March 2015). While he was here he made some videos of The Renaissance Mathematicus waving his arms about and scratching his fleas that you can view on Youtube, if that sort of thing turns you on. In exchange for this act of personal humiliation The Renaissance Mathematics demanded that he provide the readers of this blog with a new guest post and here it is. This time The Prof explains why it is important when during historical research to actually look at the original documents and not to rely on secondary sources. 


You have probably heard the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Sometimes the small stuff matters. Consider one of the more infamous statements from the history of science: the one, made on 24 February 1616 by a team of consultants for the Roman Inquisition, which declared the Copernican theory to be —


foolish and absurd in philosophy and formally heretical, because it expressly contradicts the doctrine of the Holy Scripture in many passages


— unless, that is, it was —


philosophically and scientifically untenable; and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.


The first quote is from the noted scholar Albert Van Helden in the book Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the Rise of Astrophysics, published by Cambridge University Press in 1989. That is certainly a first-rate source. The second is, more or less, from Maurice Finocchiaro, another very accomplished scholar, in his book The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, published by the University of California Press, also in 1989. It is also a first-rate source.


I say, “more or less,” because Finocchiaro actually gives the translation as —


foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.


But elsewhere in the book he substitutes “philosophically and scientifically untenable” for “foolish and absurd in philosophy” — “philosophy” in the seventeenth century included that which we would call “science” today. And still elsewhere he notes that the original document in the Vatican, in Latin, has a semicolon after the word “philosophia.”


Is Finocchiaro correct? After all, Van Helden’s translation conveys the impression that biblical contradiction is being given as a reason for ascribing both philosophical-scientific falsehood and theological heresy. But Finocchiaro’s translation conveys a different impression: that biblical contradiction is being given as a reason for ascribing theological heresy to a philosophically-scientifically false theory (I’m borrowing Finocchiaro’s phrasing here). I would say Van Helden’s translation, not Finocchiaro’s, is what people usually think of when they think of the infamous condemnation. But Finocchiaro’s made sense to me, based on my reading of anti-Copernican writers from that time.


I wanted to know if Finocchiaro is correct. But looking at sources that give the “original Latin” provided no answers. A review of different sources revealed a remarkable variety of punctuations. A few nineteenth-century sources show Finocchiaro’s semicolon after “philosophia.” One of these is Galileo Galilei und die romische Curie by Karl von Gebler, published in Stuttgart in 1877. Yet Galileo Galilei and the Roman Curia, by Karl von Gebler, published in London in 1879, shows no semicolon. Two editions of I documenti del processo di Galileo Galilei, edited by S. M. Pagano and published in Vatican City in 1984 and 2009, both disagree with Finocchiaro. That might seem to settle the matter — Finocchiaro must be wrong, since the Vatican would know what its documents say — except that the two editions also disagree with each other. The 1984 edition has no punctuation after “philosophia” (note Van Helden’s translation); the 2009 edition has a comma.


I contacted Finocchiaro. Was he certain about the semicolon? Yes — he had seen it himself. Did he have a copy of the original 1616 document? No.


I could find no published image of the original. That left one option: get a copy from the Vatican. How does one get a copy of an important historical document stored in the Vatican Secret Archives? Send the VSA an e-mail. For less than the cost of a cheap pizza, I had a super-high-resolution image of the infamous 24 February 1616 document condemning the Copernican system.


High-resolution images of this document are available here, on page 17-19.

And yes, Finocchiaro is correct! But follow the link above to the high-resolution image, and you will find that it is understandable that the semicolon could be overlooked when casually studying the document. I had expected the document to be a bumptious masterpiece of calligraphy, with an imposing appearance of formality suitable for an Important Proclamation. In fact, it appears much like hastily scrawled meeting minutes. The writer of the document often dots his “i” letters well to the right of the letters themselves. When these fall over commas, they give the appearance of semicolons where none exist. Furthermore, the real semicolon after “philosophia” has a very elongated dot. But, study the chicken-scratch handwriting more closely, and it is clear that “philosophia” is followed by a real semicolon.

If you think it not so clear, there is a second reason to be sure that the “philosophia” semicolon is indeed a semicolon. Here is the original Latin, taken from the document, with my translation (I kept as close as possible to the original):

Sol est centrum mundi, et omnino immobilis motu locali. The sun is the center of the world, and entirely immobile insofar as location movement [i.e. movement from place to place; no comment here on rotation movement].
Censura: Omnes dixerunt dictam propositionem esse stultam et absurdam in Philosophia; et formaliter haereticam, quatenus contradicit expresse sententiis sacrae scripturae in multis locis, secundum proprietatem verborum, et secundum communem expositionem, et sensum, Sanctorum Patrum et Theologorum doctorum. Appraisal: All have said the stated proposition to be foolish and absurd in Philosophy; and formally heretical, since it expressly contradicts the sense of sacred scripture in many places, according to the quality of the words, and according to the common exposition, and understanding, of the Holy Fathers and the learned Theologians.
Terra non est centrum mundi, nec immobilis, sed secundum se Totam, movetur, etiam motu diurno. The earth is not the center of the world, and not immobile, but is moved along Whole itself, and also by diurnal motion.
Censura: Omnes dixerunt, hanc propositionem recipere eandem censuram in Philosophia; et spectando veritatem Theologicam, adminus esse in fide erroneam. Appraisal: All have said, this proposition to receive the same appraisal in Philosophy; and regarding Theological truth, at least to be erroneous in faith.

Note the parallel structure used here. There is a statement, and then an assessment of the statement; a second statement, and then an assessment of that statement. Each assessment first has a comment regarding philosophy, and then a comment regarding religion. The second assessment statement clearly has a semicolon after “philosophia” and before “et spectando” (plenty of secondary sources show this second semicolon). Parallel structure suggests that there should also be a semicolon in the first assessment statement, after “philosophia” and before “et formaliter.”

Now, two questions.

The first question is why secondary sources have almost always gotten the punctuation wrong. I will provide a speculative answer to this.

The consultants’ statement was issued as the Inquisition investigated a complaint filed against Galileo in 1615. Galileo had been exonerated, but the Inquisition decided to consult its experts for an opinion on the status of Copernicanism. Despite the consultants’ statement, the Inquisition issued no formal condemnation of the Copernican system. (However, the Congregation of the Index, the arm of the Vatican in charge of book censorship, issued a decree on 5 March 1616 declaring the Copernican system to be “false” and “altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture,” and censoring books that presented the Copernican system as being more than a hypothesis.) The consultants’ statement was filed away in the Inquisition archives. Two decades later, a paraphrase of the statement was made public. This was because, following the trial of Galileo, copies of the 22 June 1633 sentence against him were sent to papal nuncios and to inquisitors around Europe. The sentence, which was written in Italian rather than Latin, noted the opinion of the consultant team and included a paraphrase of their statement from 1616. Still later, Giovanni Battista Riccioli included in his 1651 Almagestum Novum a Latin translation of Galileo’s sentence. Riccioli’s translation was widely referenced for centuries, and it reads as though biblical contradiction is the reason for ascribing both philosophical-scientific falsehood and theological heresy. But it was a Latin translation of an Italian paraphrase of a Latin original. Translations into modern languages of Riccioli’s Latin version simply added a fourth layer of translation.

The original statement itself was not published until the middle of the nineteenth century. Now to speculate: I imagine that at that time scholars were both used to the Riccioli version and sure that science was firmly on the side of Copernicus. The original statement, with its semicolon, assesses first that the proposition is philosophically-scientifically untenable, and then that it is formally heretical since it contradicts Scripture. Indeed, I have found that in Latin from this time semicolons are often used much as we use periods, so it would not be completely out of line to render the consultants’ statement as —

[The Copernican theory is] philosophically and scientifically untenable. It is also formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.

This makes little sense under the assumption that the Copernican system had the weight of scientific evidence behind it. I imagine this to be the reason why the statement has consistently been presented with altered punctuation — so that it reads in a manner that conforms to what modern readers believe to have been the case. If we know science was on the side of Copernicus, then the consultants must be saying that Copernicanism is untenable because it contradicts scripture. The chicken-scratch handwriting makes it easy to overlook the semicolon.

Today it is clear that in February 1616 science was not so firmly on the side of Copernicus. As Dennis Danielson and I discussed in the January issue of Scientific American (the article is available in French in Pour la Science and in German in Spektrum der Wissenschaft), and as I have written in a previous guest blog for the Renaissance Mathematicus, Tycho Brahe had formulated a potent anti-Copernican scientific argument. The argument was based on the fact that the Copernican theory seemed to imply that every star in a heliocentric universe, even the smallest, would be vastly larger than the sun. By contrast, Tycho found that in a geocentric universe the stars would have sizes consistent with the sun and larger planets. Moreover, Copernicans responded to this argument by appealing to God’s Power, saying that an infinite Creator could make giant stars. Tycho had said in print that all this was “absurd.” Indeed, most scientists today would probably classify as absurd a theory that creates a new class of giant bodies, and chalks them up to the power of God. This star size problem was definitely “in play” immediately prior to the 1616 condemnation. Simon Marius mentions it in his 1614 Mundus Jovialis. Georg Locher cites it as one of the main reasons to reject Copernicanism in his 1614 Disquisitiones Mathematicae. And Monsignor Francesco Ingoli brings it up in an essay he wrote to Galileo just prior to the condemnation (Galileo believed Ingoli to be influential in the rejection of the Copernican theory). No, these writers did not reject telescopic discoveries. They simply endorsed the Tychonic geocentric theory, which was compatible with those discoveries. Marius, for example, cites telescopic observations of the sizes of stars as supporting a Tychonic universe. Locher illustrates telescopic discoveries like the Jovian system and the phases of Venus, and endorses the Tychonic theory.

In light of this, the statement that the Copernican theory was “foolish and absurd in philosophy” (“philosophically and scientifically untenable”) makes a little more sense on its own. It essentially echoes Tycho Brahe, the most prominent astronomer of that time.

The second question is why, even granted all this, anyone should really care about a semicolon. Yes, readers of the Renaissance Mathematicus care because they love history of astronomy. Why should anyone else care? This is an important question. Indeed, in September I was in Germany, talking quite a bit with the Mathematicus, and in one conversation he mentioned how academic historians of science that he knows are facing real pressure at their institutions to justify their existence. Because, well, why should anyone care?

Here is the answer to that: In the United States, at least, science is increasingly burdened by the problem of “science deniers.” This was brought home to me yet again this semester. I was giving my students an assignment to make a video illustrating the phases of the moon and Venus by means of a ball and a light source. I went to YouTube to find an example of such a video, and quickly discovered that a “Bill Nye the Science Guy” video on moon phases will be accompanied by several links to videos demanding that NASA reveal the “truth” about the Apollo landings, as seen in this example:


No wonder so many of my students and so many of our visitors at my college’s observatory ask about whether the Apollo landings actually took place!

Whether they be the “Apollo deniers” I found on YouTube, or “9-11 Truthers,” or “vaccine deniers,” or those who assert science to support the universe being 6000 years old, all such deniers build their claims on the premise that in science, powerful forces conspire to cover up scientific truths. Science deniers see themselves as brave Copernicans, standing against the power of an Inquisition that is determined to hide scientific truth because it contradicts some Holy Writ.

The story of the Inquisition’s semicolon undermines an important narrative for science denial — the narrative that, at the beginning of the history of modern science, powerful forces indeed did conspire to suppress a scientific idea, declaring it to be “foolish and absurd” only because it was religiously inconvenient. Thus the semicolon story should undermine the entire idea of conspiracy and cover-up that is behind the science denial phenomenon. That’s a reason to care, a reason why we need good history of science, and a reason why some times we need to sweat the small stuff.

For a more academic treatment of this subject, with full references, images of different secondary sources and their different punctuations, etc., see “The Inquisition’s Semicolon: Punctuation, Translation, and Science in the 1616 Condemnation of the Copernican System.” An article on this work is also available on


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

12 responses to “Little things matter – for want of a semicolon.

  1. Reblogged this on Corpus Newtonicum and commented:
    Now this is a brilliant post, about the meaning and importance of a particular semicolon. It’s not about Newton, it’s about the 1616 condemnation of Copernicanism, and it’s by Christopher Graney. And it’s brilliant. Did I say it was brilliant?

  2. Mark Attorri

    Did Tycho himself use the word “absurdam” when discussing the enormous size of stars necessary under the Copernican system? The post suggests so (“Tycho had said in print that all this was ‘absurd’.”) but in checking the links I didn’t see a primary source (I may have missed it). If Tycho did use the exact same word in his own published writings it certainly would add weight to the idea that the consultors were referring to science rather than scripture when they censured the propositions as a matter of philosophy. Thanks for the fascinating post!

    • Chris mailed me the following answer to your question

      Yes, he does use the word “absurdam”. There are references in some of the links in the guest blog, but you can see the originals easily enough: Page 167 of Brahe’s 1601 Astronomical Letters (, about 2/3 of the way down. Here Brahe challenges Rothmann to work out the geometry of the stars, and see what absurdities result. Then Rothmann responds (page 186 of the Letters — — middle of the page), taking Brahe to task about the use of the word twice. First Rothmann asks what is so absurd about an average star being comparable in size to the orbit of Earth. Then he says that if Brahe wants to say this is absurd, he will have to demonstrate that such things are contrary to nature — because God could make giant stars.

      To tie in with another guy mentioned in the post: Ingoli cites Brahe’s book, and this section of the book, in his essay to Galileo.

      • Mark Attorri

        Thank you for your detailed response, Chris, this is very impressive. I’ve always been intrigued by how much scientific input the consultors may actually have had in formulating these censures. As Stillman Drake wrote, “Had a panel of astronomers been asked for an opinion [in 1616], it would doubtless have supported the qualifiers, as Galileo would have been outvoted on any panel of astronomers conceivable at the time.” Galileo: A Very Short Introduction, p. 77 (OUP, 1980).

  3. This is excellent. Sending it to my students now.

  4. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

  5. elteoremadecuales

    Impressive and really interesting. Thank you. However…

    The problem with the Catholic Church of the time is that they were ready to kill Galileo, had he not “changed his mind”. I do not buy your conclusion: the Church did want to suppress Galileo’s idea. And that was not because of its scientific, but its religious, status.

    It is good to know that the Church had some science on their side. But this seems a case were the conclusion was already taken beforehand, and the arguments chosen accordingly. Could the panel of experts have concluded that Galileo’s theory was consistent and realistic, and, however, in contradiction to the Bible?

    Tycho and Galileo had different views. And I guess they were glad to hear from each other. It is a totally different thing when the Inquisition gets in.

  6. araybold

    “… most scientists today would probably classify as absurd a theory that creates a new class of giant bodies, and chalks them up to the power of God.”

    Indeed, but we shouldn’t be reading the past through the standards and knowledge of today, as you have repeatedly and quite rightly pointed out.

    To be fair, right before that quote, you point out that Brahe called it absurd at the time, but I can’t help wondering if that was coloured by a profound difficulty in imagining a moving earth – if you consider a premise as being absurd at its core, you are likely to dismiss everything about it as absurd. As Rothmann pointed out at the time, simply calling something absurd is not a well-founded argument against it.

  7. Your translation of the sentence is still too weak: the “et” could and should be translated as “moreover”. This could be done even without the semi colon, but there would be no certainty of the appropriateness; the punctuation removes the ambiguity. Therefore the traditional translation is either incomplete (forcing only one of two possible meanings) or plainly wrong.

    Readers should also not miss that copernican statements are proved heretic ONLY because they were tought scientifically wrong. Since the earliest times of the church literal interpretation of the Bible was considered compulsory only if reasonable. This was widely discussed for the six days of creation. The Epistle of Barnabas, an authoritative writing contemporary of Revelation (end of first century) and often included in the early canons, already interprets Genesis in a non literal way.

  8. Suzanne Riccioli

    “Because God says so”…. -_-

    Question everything. With your heart.

    • Suzanne Riccioli

      Riccioli was funded and controlled by the church. He’s clear in his inconsistencies of opinion, that’s there’s other possibilities. The info is there, just diluted. How can anyone know? Like really know. It’s all presented information, theories and equations. Memorized and accepted. Who controls education?
      Who has something to gain or lose?
      Stop debating one another and debate the limitations of knowledge. For answers, look within. Together.

      Maybe be called crazy. Or be discredited. Don’t ever let that stop you.

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