Curious souls

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia (The Philippine Star) - September 13, 2012 - 12:00am

One fine morning in 1992 when I was living in the US, I opened the Washington Post and read these headlines: Catholic Church Pardons Galileo. Reading the headlines suspended my thoughts and some coffee on my lips. I thought I read wrong. Galileo made observations of the heavens and supported the Copernican theory that the Earth was not the center around which other heavenly bodies rotated. Galileo also made further observations supporting that theory. But the headlines were clear. I turned the page to show to my husband who was seated across the breakfast table. I said, wide-eyed: “A pardon?!?! For what?!? And 350 years after his death?!” My husband reached over to touch my cheek and just said: “Oh you are really young. You still get surprised by these absurdities.” 

Before Galileo, there was Giordano Bruno. He was a Dominican friar who was born in 1548 who asserted that the Sun was just a star and that the Earth which rotated in its axis, revolved around this star. He then said that if the Sun were just one of the stars, then there may be “many worlds” out there revolving around them. The Catholic Church then thought that was an abominable idea so they burned him for that assertion.  In the year 2000, 400 years after Bruno was barbequed, the Catholic Church officially described the execution of Bruno as a “sad episode.” I am sure Giordano Bruno could have enriched that statement with more adjectives. If not, I am sure a good number of scientists and science writers like me now would enthusiastically volunteer our explanatory and descriptive skills in crafting a statement that would be closer to the reality and the meaning of Giordano’s burning. 

Long before Bruno and Galileo, there was another friar Roger Bacon (1214-1294) who was imprisoned for 25 years for figuring out what makes a rainbow by experimenting on prisms! I cannot find any record of a pardon or a description that the imprisonment was at least, as Bruno’s was — “a sad episode.” If he has not yet been pardoned, I am now burning with my own curiosity as to who is in charge of sending a reminder. Not that Bacon would probably still care but perhaps just to put on record this remarkable consistency in absurdity.

There were many others. I just thought Galileo, Bruno and Bacon should make top billing for this column to remind ourselves that curiosity and understanding in those days paid the highest price to be satisfied and publicized. They were deeply curious minds who tried to figure things out and we all know what happened to them. But what happened in those days when the Catholic Church got curious? I know of at least one case in 1533.

I got hold of a detailed account of the first autopsy ever done in the Americas in 1533. The account was entitled The First Autopsy in the New World by Fidelio A Jimenez M.D. State University of New York Downstate Medical Center Brooklyn, New York published in 1978. The autopsy was done on conjoined twins who died eight days after their birth. The Church ordered an autopsy to ascertain the number of souls contained in conjoined bodies. And based on an examination of the organs including the fused livers (with a delineation marking the fusion) and two gallbladders, and some interviews with the twins’ father that the conjoined twins did not always do the same thing at the same time, their conclusion was that the conjoined twins had two souls. However the girls’ father who was being charged by the Church for two baptismal fees, was “less than willing to pay for the two baptisms administered by the priest, protesting that a single soul would do for the two bodies inasmuch as they were united.” I wish the document contained more noble intentions but that was the motivation for the curiosity on record.

I am no longer young and Galileo’s pardon is now 20-years old. This is my 10th year of writing these weekly science columns and after over 500 columns, I am no longer surprised by religious absurdities; but they do still upset me. At times, I am compelled to remind myself and my readers of what it had cost deeply curious souls back in those days to pursue understanding and not be contented with mere belief or dogma. Curiosity killed a lot of them but the spirit of questing lives to this day to move us forward. Each time a new discovery about nature, including human nature, is revealed by science, we still, often without meaning to, metaphorically stick a nasty finger or a matter-of-factly downward bending thumb to old beliefs. But we are no longer barbequed for it, at least not literally; unless I am speaking too soon.

Curiosity in different hands in those times led to very different endings.  One led to the present understanding of ourselves, each other and the universe; the other, am not too sure of, aside from probably generally keeping the sacramental rate of one fee per soul through the changing times.

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