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Galileo’s Struggle to Defend Science at Risk of Personal Ruin

Free play pits Renaissance scientist against society and the church

  • Galileo’s telescope and astronomical discoveries lead to a new worldview
  • Under interrogation, scientist must decide if he will stand by his research
  • Play held in a lecture hall where tomorrow’s scientists and engineers are taught
  • ETOPiA initiative inspires dialogue about role of science and technology in society

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Bertolt Brecht’s masterful drama “A Life of Galileo,” portraying Galileo’s struggle to defend his scientific observations at the risk of personal ruin, will run from Nov. 13 to Dec. 6 at Northwestern University.

The production highlights the conflict between Galileo -- who proved the Earth and planets revolve around the sun -- and the society he lived in, as well as his students’ and supporters’ efforts to come to terms with his choices.

“Galileo” marks the eighth season of ETOPiA: Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts, an outreach initiative that seeks to inspire cross-disciplinary dialogue about the role of science and technology in society.


Performances will take place in a classroom in the heart of the Technological Institute, where engineering and science students spend many of their waking hours in lectures, labs and team meetings. Each performance will include a post-show discussion led by Northwestern faculty and students.

The play is free and open to the public; advance reservations are strongly recommended.


To realize this piece, ETOPiA has engaged director Brian Bell, who is based out of Berlin after two years working at the German National Theatre. His “Galileo” is a radically re-imagined drama about one of scientific history’s heroic figures.

In the 17th-century Venetian Republic, professor and scientist Galileo Galilei hears about a new invention -- the telescope -- and creates one of his own. The first to point a telescope toward the sky, Galileo discovers a universe of planets and moons, evidence supporting a heliocentric model of our solar system.

This new worldview ran counter to the powerful Roman Catholic Church. Under interrogation, Galileo is forced to decide between standing by his discoveries and undergoing torture or recanting his work and saving himself and his family from personal ruin.

“This year’s show highlights the constant struggle within our society between the free thinkers and the protectors of civil order,” said Matthew Grayson, executive producer of the annual ETOPiA event. “How much free thinking can the powers-that-be allow before new ideas start to threaten the very social structure that gave birth to those ideas?” 

Grayson is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science

“A Life of Galileo” will feature Tom McElroy, Laura Berner Taylor and Michael P. McDonald.

Performances (Nov. 13 to Dec. 6) will be held at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays in Room L361 of the Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road, on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. (Note: The show will be performed through the Thanksgiving weekend.)

Since ETOPiA’s “Copenhagen” premiered in 2008, the event annually attracts to campus a diverse audience of community members, high school students, undergraduates, graduate students, staff and faculty.

For reservations and more information, go online or call 847-324-3296.

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