The meaning of Galileo in America's heartland

Posted: Dec 04, 2004 12:00 AM

NORMAN, Okla. - When most people think of Norman, they think of the University of Oklahoma (OU) Sooners. Galileo, in other words, does not spring immediately to mind.

Nor does Copernicus. Nor Aristotle, nor Leonardo da Vinci.

Yet these legendary players in the fields of arts and sciences keep each other quiet company among the university's remarkable History of Science Collections, which I got to peruse briefly during a visit for the dedication of OU's new College of Journalism.

Spending time among the collections' 90,000 volumes is a rare sensory experience, especially for bibliophiles like me who smell books before reading them. You can have your Chanel No. 5; I'll take a 15th-century leather-bound volume of Pietro de' Crescenzi any day.

A casual visitor isn't likely to stumble across the collections, which are located on the fifth floor of the Bizzell Memorial Library. First you have to get buzzed into the reception area of the History of Science lobby. Then, if you're lucky, Dr. Marilyn Ogilvie, curator and professor of science history, will take you to the vault.

Ogilvie is one of only two people with access to the rare-book storage area, where temperature and humidity are maintained at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 51 percent relative humidity.

First things first: Yes, wine would do perfectly here, and I wasn't the first to inquire. And second, yes, I felt like I was entering the Vatican Archives, just behind Robert Langdon and Vittoria Vetra in Dan Brown's novel, "Angels and Demons." Well, except for the linoleum floor, overhead fluorescent lighting, the absence of Bernini sculpture and a few other minor details.


First you notice the chill, then the unmistakable aroma of old books. Thousands of them. Vellum pages. Leather and wood bindings. The history of ideas, of man's search for truth and meaning and God (or not) right there in stacks. Ogilvie admits she gets goosebumps when she enters and it's not about the temperature.

The treasures here are too numerous to mention. The oldest book is a 1467 edition of "Opus de Universo" or "Work About Everything" by Hrabanus Maurus. It's an encyclopedia of sorts, arranged not alphabetically but by order of importance. "God" leads the way, as one might imagine.

Of all the gems here, the Hope Diamond for me was a first edition of Galileo's "Sidereus Nuncius," published in 1610. Not only is it a rare first edition, it was one of Galileo's own books. We know this because he inscribed it to a friend and jotted notes in the margins.

Another marvel is a corrected version of "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium" (On The Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs") by Nicholas Copernicus, published in 1543.

Copernicus, of course, scandalized the world - and more important, the Catholic Church - with his theory of heliocentric cosmology. That was his assertion that the sun was the center of the universe and that other planets, including Earth, revolved around it. The church considered his claim a contradiction of the Bible and therefore heretical.

The church ordered Copernicus to correct his story, as reflected in the library's copy. Inked above his "Demonstration of the Triple Motion of the Earth" is the word "Hypothesis." A century later, Galileo was found guilty of heresy for supporting Copernicus' "hypothesis" and was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

The conflict of religion and science sounds all too familiar. Darwin still has trouble getting past creationist gatekeepers in some school districts.

It is striking how much we've learned and yet how little we've changed as we continue to ask the same questions. As Ogilvie puts it: "What we learn from the history of science is that people do not want to throw out their pet theories."

The geocentric "Earth-centered" theory that Copernicus challenged went all the way back to the 6th century B.C. It was a radical idea - and probably frightening to consider - that Earth was not the center of the universe. We humans have a hard time with the narcissistic injury of our own insignificance.

It was a coincidence of geography that took me home from Norman through Oklahoma City via the empty space that used to be the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people, including 19 children, on April 19, 1995.

The distance between Norman and Oklahoma City is short as the crow flies. The distance between the ignorance that led to charges of heresy against Galileo - and that which nourished the self-righteous narcissism of McVeigh - is shorter still.