FOUR hundred years ago, everybody knew that the sun revolved round the Earth. Anyone who held a different opinion was either mad or a heretic who refused to believe in a cosmic state of affairs ordained by God. And the Vatican took a stern view of heretics.
When Galileo insisted that the Earth revolved round the sun, the Vatican moved in. The Holy See's Heavy Gang prepared to torture him.
The sight of the instruments of torture was enough. Galileo recanted.
Nowadays they can't torture you to cure you of heresy -- in this part of the world, anyway. But there are other ways of making you toe the line, or marginalising you if you refuse. We can see that in the case of people who express radical, seemingly eccentric, opinions about the present crisis.
And that must seem exceedingly odd to anyone who devotes a little thought to the history, and the nature, of the crisis.
Political leaders everywhere are bewildered. Some favour austerity, some printing money, some a mixture of both. None appears to work.
One day, Angela Merkel is going to allow Greece to default. The next, she is going to bail Greece out. On Thursday she came out against eurobonds. I don't know what she may say tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the European economy stagnates, companies go bust and unemployment rises, and in the US the political system is paralysed.
Into the breach steps the prime minister of China, leader of the greatest creditor nation. He does not conceal his just anger. He furiously berates the Americans and Europeans for their inability to make decisions.
But where is the solution to be found? Surely not in the Chinese model. There, the economy is controlled, if that's the word, by the communist party. In Western Europe, there are no communist parties to speak of; still, the message from the Far East is worth listening to. It's a reminder that while our own politicians are chipping nervously at the fringes, we are dealing with something that is not just an Irish crisis or a European crisis but a global crisis and that by the time it subsides the whole world will have changed, for ever.
Mind you, the world has already changed dramatically in our own lifetimes -- including the lifetimes of the present generation of students -- and we have to come to terms with realities as startling as those put forward by Galileo and other scientists of his time.
There is an excellent summary of them, not aimed at deep thinkers but at the average reader, in a book published last year, 'The House Always Wins' by John McGuinness (with Naoise Nunn).
McGuinness, for two years a junior minister in the Department of Enterprise, was sacked by Brian Cowen in 2009. He held on to his seat in Carlow-Kilkenny in February and is now chairman of the Dail Public Accounts Committee.
He foresaw, in outline if not in detail, the disaster of September 30, 2008. The crisis had in fact begun in 2007, but the Fianna Fail-Green government was sound asleep when it was not arguing about idiotic issues like the stag-hunting ban.
McGuinness credits the small and medium enterprises with alerting him to the coming crash. So it's not hindsight when he says, for example, that "basic resources and food prices will never again be as cheap as they were".
He writes: "Add to this the credit crunch, global warming, the silent battle for water, the continuing slow decline of Western manufacturing and the growing power of technology, which is turning the world into a single inter-related marketplace. and you have a powerful unstable cocktail, which will take time to settle and which heralds the beginning of a new, very different world."
I don't know how many ministers in the last government -- or the present one -- have the ability to grasp the implications, much less describe them.
And I don't know to what extent McGuinness can bring his insights to bear on his present job. There have been plenty of good PAC chairmen, and plenty of devastating reports to the committee by the Comptroller and Auditor General, but they have not ended or even reduced the waste, mismanagement and inertia which characterise the Irish public service.
He is scathing about the defects of the civil service and the quangos, and about the alliance between officials and governments which favours misguided policies, promotes delays and stamps on bright ideas from people like himself. But he shrinks from blaming his own party directly for the politicisation of the civil service, which is at the root of so many evils.
So loyal is he that in his recommendations for reforms he envisages them being carried out by a Fianna Fail, or "New Fianna Fail", government.
He assumes that a Fine Gael-Labour coalition would tear itself apart. Now that we have one, I sincerely hope this won't happen.
I hope, too, that even if Fianna Fail can revitalise itself it will not return to office for a very long time. It has neither the brains nor the courage to implement proposals like those of McGuinness: commonsensical, but in the Irish context revolutionary. As revolutionary as the idea once was, that the Earth circled the sun.
So in a strange way his book is more of a guide to Fine Gael and Labour than to his own party. Indeed, although I don't agree with all of it I think it would make a good guide for any government that can raise its eyes above the horizon and watch out, lest the planet wobble in its orbit.