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UCL Festival of Culture: Galileo: what was his crime?

Siobhan Pipa2 June 2016

Justus_Sustermans_-_Portrait_of_Galileo_Galilei,_1636

Portrait of Galileo Galilei, Justus Sustermans

Nearly 400 years ago in April 1633 the Italian astronomer, mathematician and natural philosopher, Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Roman Inquisition.

The main charge against him centred on his support for the Copernican theory, aka the belief that a mobile Earth orbited a stationary sun. The theory was thought to contradict the Bible and Galileo was placed on trial for heresy.

But what was Galileo’s real crime? Was science really defeated by religion, as legend would have it? These were some of the questions raised by Andrew Campbell from UCL Italian in his lecture Galileo: what was his crime?, organised as part of the UCL Festival of Culture.

I’ve always found the Galileo Affair fascinating and it’s often used as the leading example of the supposed battle between science and religion. Florence’s Galileo Museum proudly displays his mummified middle finger pointing towards the heavens – a definitive display of science triumphing over the Catholic Church.

When Galileo is mentioned today it’s often not in recognition of his scientific work but as the poster child for the war between religion and science. However, is it as simple as this – can you separate science and religion from the politics, and personalities, of the day?

To delve a little deeper into the whole affair Andrew provided a short run through of the events which led up to 1633.

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Science and the First World War

Siobhan Pipa9 July 2014

German scientist Fritz Haber

German scientist Fritz Haber

The relationship between science, technology and warfare is a topic I find incredibly intriguing – partially kick-started from taking a module in Science, Warfare and Peace back when I was an undergraduate in UCL Science & Technology Studies.

So, with high hopes I headed down to The Guardian offices to watch the final instalment of UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour – given by Professor Jon Agar (UCL Science & Technology Studies), titled Science and the First World War.

Opening with the haunting image of ‘We are making a new world’ by Paul Nash, Professor Agar points out that there is frequently no force so associated with the making of a new world as science.

If there’s one thing I took away from my undergraduate degree, it’s that science, like nearly every other topic in the world, is not an isolated endeavour – there are always outside influences at play.

And there is probably no bigger outside influence than the First World War. Often considered the first ‘total war’, science was driven and transformed by the events of a hundred years ago.

Along with shaping the path science took during this period, the First World War also raised a number of profound and troubling questions about the very nature of science.

Is science a force for construction? Or is it a force of destruction? Does science transcend international boundaries or should science be recruited to further a country’s cause? How should scientists be used during warfare and is there a way to organise science in the most efficient way?

Using some of the most prominent scientists of the First World War, Professor Agar proceeded to examine these themes at a much more personal and intimate level.

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‘War of the Worlds’ screening

Frances-Catherine Quevenco18 October 2011

On 3 October, at 6:30pm in the Darwin building of UCL, film enthusiasts, science historians, historians, scientists and a collection of many others gathered to watch the screening of Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953).

It is an invasion film based on the popular novel written by H.G. Wells. In fact, it was apparently one of the earliest adaptations of the novel and actually won an Oscar for its special effects. That unfortunately did not stop some of the audience snickering at the killer laser beam attacks of the aliens, nor did it stop fans of the Wells novel criticising the film for making the alien machines hover rather than move in a tripod-like fashion in the novel. This was one of the many fun facts that Dr Joe Cain, Head of UCL Science and Technology Studies and Senior Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Biology, shared with the audience before the movie.

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