By Barbara McAlister
Word of the Day: Heliocentric
“Helio” is a prefix from the Greek word for sun. In Greek mythology, Helios was the god who drove his chariot across the sky daily from east to west. The word “heliotrope” refers to plants that respond to sunlight and is also the name of a small purplish flower.
“Heliocentric” refers to the theory that the sun is the center of our universe, the idea famously supported by Galileo Galilei in the 1600s. Because this appeared to contradict the Bible, history tells us that Galileo was subject to the cruel horrors of the inquisition and punishment by the Catholic Church.
Galileo’s trial and punishment wasn’t what most people imagine, though. After a brief trial in which there was no physical torture, Galileo was sent to live for two years in the bishop’s palace with the intellectual archbishop of Sienna, where he “suffered” pleasant meals and scholarly conversations. He returned to his villa near Florence in 1634 under house arrest, ordered to read penitential psalms once a week for three years. His daughter received permission to perform the penance so he didn’t even have to do that. It was under house arrest that Galileo wrote the work that established his reputation as the father of modern physics and astronomy. He was said to be Einstein’s favorite scientist.
When Galileo had health problems later in life, he was allowed to seek care in Florence. He remained a devout Catholic until his death at age 77, although he never married the mother of his three children. In 1992 the Vatican formally cleared Galileo of any wrongdoing.