Henry Lucas and Galileo

Henry Lucas was Cambridge University’s Member of Parliament from 1639–1640. In his will Lucas, who died in 1663, bequeathed his library of 4,000 volumes to the University. The highlight of that extraordinary collection was Galileo’s most famous work Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems). The book was published in Florence in 1632 by Giovanni Battista Landini (of whose activities precious few details have survived). This groundbreaking study established the heliocentric theory of the solar system. A year later, the author was convicted of suspicion of heresy, and the study itself placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, from which it was not removed until 1835. When it comes to intolerance, the church has enormous patience.

In his will, Lucas also left instruction for the purchase of land whose yielding should provide £100 a year for the founding of a professorship. This post became known as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. It was founded in 1663, and officially established by Charles II in January 1664. It still is one of the world’s most prestigious academic posts. Lucas stipulated in his will that the holder of the professorship should not be active in the church. When Isaac Newton held the office, he appealed to Charles II that this requirement excused him from taking holy orders, which was compulsory for the majority of fellows of the university at that time. The King supported Newton, and excused all holders of the professorship, in perpetuity, from the requirement to take those orders.

We owe great debt of gratitude to men such as Lucas and Newton, the collector and the scientist, both pursuing the common goals of freedom of thought and independence of research. The history of science gives ample evidence of the fact that the inquisitive mind cannot live with the interference from state, church, or moral reform movements. In his creative pursuits lies the dignity of man, if not his raison d’être.