Learning To See The Universe – Karl Giberson

April 11, 2012

''Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope'' by Giuseppe Bertini 1858

We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of ‘even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.
Albert Einstein


The Dutchman Hans Lippershey invented the telescope in 1608. He owed his “aha” moment, at least according to legend, to children playing with lenses in his shop, where he made spectacles. The children were playing with pieces of the glass that Lippershey so painstakingly and precisely ground into lenses for his visually impaired customers. The children noticed that a weather vane on a nearby church looked larger when viewed through a pair of lenses. Intrigued by the children’s discovery, Lippershey installed lenses in a tube and invented what he called a “looker.” Shortly after, he applied for a patent for his looker.

The patent office turned down his application on the grounds that the device was so simple that its workings could hardly remain secret. They were right. After all, it had been discovered by children. A year later, the great Italian scientist Galileo Galilei heard a vague description of the device and built his own looker. His first feeble attempt magnified objects by a mere factor of three. With some effort he improved the performance until the magnification was around nine times, and got rich in the process.

On August 21, 1609, Galileo showed off his supposedly original invention to Venetian political leaders, including the chief magistrate — called the “Doge” — Leonardo Donato. The demonstration took place in the bell tower of Saint Mark’s cathedral, from which one could look in any direction. Galileo’s impressive performance got him named professor to the University of Padua for which he accepted a generous one thousand florin pension a year. (Wikimedia Commons)

In late August 1609 Galileo, then a professor at the University of Padua in the Venetian Republic, led some senators up a tower in Venice so they could look out to sea with his new spyglass. The senators assumed he had invented the remarkable device and were suitably impressed. Galileo’s `optical tube,” as they called it, enabled them to “discover at a much greater distance than usual the hulls and sails of the enemy, so that for two hours or more we can detect him before he detects us.” As the “inventor” of the amazing instrument, Galileo got a big raise and tenure.

Personal gain, although of interest to Galileo, was not his primary interest in the telescope. He wanted a closer look at the heavens in the hopes of seeing something there that would prove that the earth was going around the sun and not vice versa. Galileo was convinced that evidence must be there, somewhere, to establish the motion of the earth, as the great Polish thinker, Nicolaus Copernicus, had proposed in his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, published in 1543.

The new sun-centered model of the solar system had captured the imagination of some leading astronomers attracted to its simplicity. For decades, however, fans of the new model had been looking for some observational evidence that the earth was moving. But none had been discovered, which was puzzling. It seemed incomprehensible that the earth could be hurtling through space at seventy thousand miles per hour without some evidence that it was doing so.

Galileo, like any first-time user of a telescope, looked first at the moon. He was startled to find it “rough and uneven” with “huge prominences, deep valleys and chasms.” This ran counter to the prevailing view that bodies in the heavens were all perfectly spherical and composed of some perfect ethereal material not present on earth. The moon, Galileo would report, contradicting a two-thousand-year-old tradition going back to Aristotle, was clearly not “robed in a smooth and polished surface.” It looked much like the earth, in fact, undermining the standard view that the heavens were profoundly different than the earth, which was located at the center of the universe.

Galileo’s innocent observation was quite radical in the first decade of the seventeenth century. The prevailing astronomical tradition had long taught that the heavens were perfect and unchanging, in contrast to the earth, which seemed in constant upheaval. This claim derived from the simple observation that change was almost never observed in the heavens. Christian theology, inspired by this pagan Greek idea, had interpreted the consistency of the night sky in terms of sin and the fall.

Adam’s sin had corrupted the earth but not the heavens, so the heavens — including the pattern of stars — were still in the same perfect state that God had originally created. Hell, being at the center of the earth, was also in the center of the universe, the worst spot in God’s creation, of course, and as far away from the heavens as one could get. As one moved outward from the God-forsaken chaos at the center, things improved. The orbit of the moon was the boundary between the earthly and heavenly realm. The moon was in the heavens, beyond the sinister reach of the curse God had inaugurated in response to Adam’s sin. And yet it was not perfectly spherical. Why did it look so much like the earth if it was a heavenly body?

Early in January 1610, four wandering “stars” entered the field of view of Galileo’s telescope, each of them always close to Jupiter. Galileo grew excited as he came to realize these wandering stars were moons orbiting Jupiter, proving that not everything revolved around the earth. This undermined the notion that the earth was somehow the central — although most corrupted — point of the creation. Europe’s other great astronomer, Johannes Kepler, was thrilled with the discovery and went so far as to say, “Our Moon exists for us on the Earth, not for the other globes. Those four little moons exist for Jupiter, not for us…. From this line of reason we deduce with the highest degree of probability that Jupiter is inhabited.”

Galileo also found a way to look at the sun and located odd dark spots on it that came and went. Like the moon, the sun had a distinctly non-heavenly complexion. None of these discoveries provided the whiz-bang proof that the earth was in motion, but they certainly undermined other prevailing views. His more traditional contemporaries, however, were skeptical. Telescopes were rare, so most people couldn’t check for themselves. And those who had telescopes found them so hard to operate that they couldn’t always see what Galileo claimed he saw. Gradually, though, skepticism gave way to grudging respect as Galileo’s discoveries — which he lorded over his peers as evidence of his superior intellect — were confirmed by others.

Galileo’s star rose steadily in the firmament of Italian science as his discoveries became widely known. In less than two decades, however, his rising star would sputter and plummet back to earth in his celebrated confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church.

In the last days of 1612 Galileo recorded in his notebook a “fixed star” that he observed near Jupiter. (The star was much farther away, of course, but it was next to Jupiter visually, like the moons.) Five days later he noted another new star near Jupiter. On January 28, 1613, he again noted two stars near Jupiter. The first one was just another star, now noted in star catalogs with the exciting name SAO 119234. The second one would prove more interesting, although it would take 250 years to realize just how interesting when it turned out to be the planet now named Neptune.

I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

In 1633 an elderly Galileo found himself kneeling before the Inquisition and recanting his long-held belief that the earth moves about the sun. Despite his best intentions — and many promises to his colleagues and critics — his telescope had failed to turn up compelling evidence for the radical idea that the earth moves.

Contrary to widespread perception that the church was closed-minded and resistant to scientific ideas, the truth is that Galileo simply did not have any solid observational evidence. And based on both common sense and the best scientific understanding of the day, a moving earth should produce some noticeable effects. Many of Galileo’s contemporaries — themselves astronomers and mathematicians — considered Copernicus’s idea of a moving earth to be ridiculous for reasons that had nothing to do with the Bible or theology. And many of them agreed with Galileo about the motion of the earth, but believed the idea needed further development before it could be presented with any hope of being accepted. Galileo was fir from the only Copernican of his generation, but he was the only one campaigning to change everybody’s mind.

In 1597 Galileo received a copy of Johannes Kepler’s book The Cosmic Mystery, which argued in favor of the sun-centered universe. Kepler was in many ways Galileo’s Protestant counterpart and his only real peer in the pantheon of European astronomers. Galileo responded cordially to this first overture from Kepler, expressing his appreciation for a new “associate in the study of Truth who is a friend of Truth.”

He went on to explain how he had been arguing quietly in favor of Copernicus for years and had “written many arguments in support of him and in refutation of the opposite view.” But he feared ridicule and had not “dared to bring into the public light, frightened by the fate of Copernicus himself, our teacher who, though he acquired immortal fame with some, is yet to remain to an infinite number of others (for such is the number of fools) an object of ridicule and derision.” The word fools, unfortunately, was often on Galileo’s lips as he enthusiastically ridiculed those who disagreed with him.

Galileo’s advocacy for Copernicanism grew with each passing year, despite his consistent failure to find the evidence he promised. He became bolder and more aggressive. His fame spread across the continent and he grew steadily richer, with increasingly more lucrative academic postings and endless sales of telescopes. Gifted at debate and self-promotion, he steadily climbed the Italian social ladder, to the envy i1′ his colleagues. He made enemies and backed many of his into corners from where they could do nothing but seethe and look for an opportunity to get even.

 Some more cool-headed Jesuit astronomers were quietly teaching Copernican astronomy in Catholic universities, and, had Galileo not turned the motion of the earth into a political controversy, their diplomatic approach would have probably carried the day and avoided what became a great humiliation to the church. As it was, they were quite frustrated that Galileo’s bombastic personal style got Copernicanism declared heretical and his book listed on an Index of Prohibited Books that good Catholics were not supposed to read.

The motion of the earth that we accept without a second thought today was troubling and without much support — scientific or otherwise — in the seventeenth century. It flew solidly in the face of a two thousand-year tradition; there wasn’t a single piece of observational data establishing it as true; it removed the earth from the center, where Christian theology thought it belonged, albeit in abject humiliation. Nevertheless, despite all these challenges, many Christians were slowly coming around to the new astronomy, and had Galileo been more diplomatic there would not have been any need for his great and celebrated confrontation between science and religion.

After recanting his heresies in 1633, Galileo spent the rest of his life in a comfortable apartment in Florence, under house arrest and forbidden to explore any longer the idea that the earth goes around the sun. He died in 1642.

Galileo’s celebrated trial before the Inquisition has acquired a mythical status in our secular culture. Paintings such as Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti (1857), plays like Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo (1940), and even public television’s documentary Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens (2002) have portrayed Galileo as a great hero standing up to a backward and superstitious church. Urban legends report that Galileo was imprisoned and tortured, neither of which is true. Scholars who have examined the Galileo case argue that these portrayals are oversimplified. He was not tortured; the closest he came to imprisonment was house arrest in a luxury apartment; and there is ample evidence that the Italian political scene, over against the church, played a major role in his condemnation. (Cristiano Banti/Wikimedia Commons).

The physicist Steven Barr continues on in a post dating from 2010. The secular scientists have long since rewritten this history and it’s fun to see them get a little comeuppance. To think that PBS was still circulating this crap in 2002 is laughable…

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