Thursday, December 31, 2009

Galileo's Telescope

I hope to be Galileo's telescope - helping people see, discovering, bringing faraway near, confronting fear

2009 was the four hundredth anniversary of Galileo Galilei's telescope. Galileo (1564-1642) was a scientist, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and physicist. He was a "wonderer", and this "wondering" quality encouraged him to think differently from his fellow Pisans. When he was a child people said, "He has stars in his eyes."

Copernicus (1473-1543) was also a "wonderer". He looked up into the sky and wondered: "What if the world doesn't act the way people think it acts? Maybe the earth revolves around the sun." He wrote down his wonderings but didn't publish them because he couldn't prove them and because he was afraid, fearful of the power of the Church. Italy was like a quilt in those days, sewn out of patches of city states, each city state with its own laws and government. The only thing the city states had in common was a common religion, the Catholic faith, and the Church was a powerful influence.. The Church believed the Bible taught that the earth was the center of the universe. To go against this belief of the Church meant the possibility of suffering and punishment.

In 1609, Galileo heard about an instrument that could make small things big and bring faraway near. He wrote: "A report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed a spyglass...Upon hearing the news, I set myself to thinking about the problem...Finally, sparing neither labor nor expense, I succeeded in constructing for myself so excellent an instrument that objects seen by means of it appeared nearly one thousand times larger and over thirty times closer than when regarded with our natural vision." (The word telescope was coined two years later, in 1611.). This instrument helped him use his senses, reason, and intellect to show people that Copernicus was correct - the earth and the other planets moved around the sun.

Each night, Galileo looked up and out into the night sky and wrote down everything he observed. He published his observations in a book that he called "The Starry Messenger". He sent telescopes and copies of his book to all the kings and princes of Europe. When he was a young man he had entertained and amused people with his brilliant observations. The people would say, "Galileo is our star!" Now his brilliance made him Chief Philosopher and Mathematician to the Medici court.

Galileo wrote: "I hold the sun to be situated motionless in the center of the revolution of the celestial orbs while the earth rotates on it axis and revolves around the sun.". His belief about the way the world worked differed from the Church's belief. He stated: "I do not feel obliged to believe the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use...He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations...If they (the ancient philosophers) had seen what we see, they would have judged as we judge". The Church disagreed with him and brought him before the Inquisition.

He was tried by the Inquisition and found guilty of heresy. "Namely for having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture; that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to the Holy Scripture" (June 1633 Rome). He was condemned to spend the rest of his life locked in his house under guard. The stars that had been in his eyes since his birth in Pisa went out. Later, he went blind.

Galileo's ideas lived on, as truthful ideas do. On October 31, 1992, three hundred fifty-nine years after he was sentenced by the Inquisition, he was pardoned by the Church. His blind eyes opened the eyes of others and helped them see. The wonder of his genius is a star that guides us still.

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