Galileo, Starry Messenger to the world

Published 4:51 pm Tuesday, January 5, 2010

In 1608, a Dutch spectacle-maker by the name of Hans Lippershey invented an optical tube that caused far-away objects to appear closer than they actually were. Lippersheys spyglass soon became a popular novelty and copies of it were sold throughout the region.

During the summer of 1609, Galileo Galilei, a 45 year-old Italian astronomer, mathematician and physicist, heard about Lippersheys invention, assembled his own spyglass, and turned it toward the heavens.

With it he promptly made a series of world-changing discoveries.

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From earliest times, beginning with Plato and Aristotle of ancient Greece, the prevailing world view had been that the earth was the center of the universe and that it did not move. Even though a sun-centered universe had been proposed by Nicholas Copernicus 65 years earlier, the continuing view in Galileos time was that the earth was the center and that the stars and planets revolved around it. Armed with his newly constructed telescope Galileo showed otherwise.

With a magnification of only 32, Galileo discovered mountains and valleys on the surface of the moon revealing it to be a material body similar to the earth. He showed spots on the surface of the sun and that the spots moved, proving that the sun, which had up to that time been considered constant and unblemished, was in fact changeable and imperfect.

Galileo showed that Venus went through phases like those of the moon, which could only happen if it circled the sun and not the earth. Saturn was found to be elliptical in appearance due to its system of previously unseen rings. His telescope revealed the Milky Way to be composed of stars too distant to be singled out individually, a concept first articulated two thousand years earlier by the Greek astronomer Aristarchus, but rejected by seventeenth century authorities as an absurdity.

But of Galileos many discoveries none was more significant than the revelation of four moons circling the planet Jupiter. As he charted the course of these moons from night to night Galileo demonstrated that the earth was not the center of all motion in the solar system. And if the earth was not the center of everything then perhaps it was not the center of anything (as Copernicus had suggested earlier but for lack of a telescope could not prove).

Galileo published his findings the following year in a book he titled Starry Messenger. The book became an instant best seller and all copies were promptly sold out (Galileo himself received only six of the 30 copies he had been promised by the publisher).

The popularity of Starry Messenger dealt a severe blow to the traditional earth-centered view held by the intellectual elite and the Catholic Church. Seeing their vested interests threatened, the university professors united and conspired with Dominican preachers to disparage Galileo in the eyes of ecclesiastical authorities, define him as a heretic, and destroy his books. As a result Galileo was brought before the Inquisition in Rome and threatened with death if he did not renounce his views publicly.

There is an interesting historical analogy here in connection with the theory of global warming advanced by certain academics, professors and politicians of our own age who, rather than objectively seeking the truth, manipulate facts, shout down debate, and denigrate those with whom they disagree.

Though science has advanced greatly over the last 400 years, it is clear that human nature has not.

Beginning with the New Year, we are changing the name of our astronomy column: from Skywatch to Starry Messenger in honor of Galileo and his straightforward approach to science. Objectivity is a worthy pursuit for writers in all subjects, and for readers as well. Being human, all of us have some degree of personal bias. Therefore, I use the word pursuit of objectivity rather than goal. Let the facts lead where they may, should be our common mind-set.

Astronomy is not a subject isolated from everyday life. Rather, it is intimately linked with almost every aspect of human endeavor. The very act of getting up in the morning is a result of sunrise at your particular longitude on earth. As you read this paper energy from sunlight (past or present) makes it possible.

Galileo understood the universal nature and importance of astronomy and he experimented, lectured, and wrote accordingly. He did not begin with a conclusion and then try to create evidence to prove his view; he sought only the data from which he could discover reality. Neither was he politically correct. He was willing to risk his life and his reputation for principles he deemed important to humanity even when those views were in opposition to the accepted ones.

Galileo may or may not have shared the notion so commonly expressed in todays discourse that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. If he did, it is certain he knew that it does not follow from this that every opinion is equal. To equate the two is nonsense and serves no useful purpose.

A further reason for choosing the title Starry Messenger is the inspirational nature of Galileo, the man. Those fortunate enough to have been in his company became captivated with the canopy of stars and planets sparkling overhead (at a time before electric lights) as he described their nature and motions with a clarity never evinced before. We will endeavor to deliver a similar message one that we hope will resonate with you and hopefully spark an increased interest and appreciation of the majesty and beauty of a starry night sky. Give the heavens above more that just a passing glance. We hope that phrase will be added to any list of resolutions you man choose to make this New Year!~ Starry Messenger written by Jim Cooper