Science and Religion on a Collision Course at Galileo’s Trial

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Over the centuries, Galileo’s trial in 1633 for defending heliocentrism — that Earth orbits the Sun, not the other way around — the Inquisition’s finding that he was “vehemently suspect of heresy” and his recantation have grown far beyond just a seminal clash between science and religion. The Galileo affair has become general shorthand for speaking truth to power, a cautionary tale to invoke whenever new ideas challenge the established order.

A play that peels back the myths and metaphors, then, to peer into the personal would be welcome. Too often the legend wins out, starting with the notion that Galileo, having renounced his belief that Earth moves, muttered, “But still, it moves.” (There is no evidence that he did.) Brecht’s famous drama “Life of Galileo” buys into that rumor and goes even further, painting a harsh portrait of a sly self-promoter who turns cowardly when it counts most.

Ira Hauptman’s “Starry Messenger,” now at the Theater for the New City, sketches a more sympathetic Galileo, one who glories in his science and his status but who is also worried about his three children. Born out of wedlock, his daughters, Virginia and Livia, live in a convent, while his son, Vincenzio, craves to be legitimized so he can become a lawyer. In this play (if not in history) how Galileo navigates this trial will affect not only science’s future but also theirs....

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