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Four Hundred Years Ago, Galileo’s Telescope Changed The World

August 25, 2009 by  
Filed under tech history

GalileoAugust 25, 2009
By Breffni O’Rourke

Despite the summer heat, the Senate of Venice assembled on this day in 1609 to view a remarkable scientific instrument. It was built by the well-known astronomer and philosopher from Pisa, Galileo Galilei, and could make distant objects appear closer when viewed through one end of its long pipe. It was a telescope.

Not that Galileo had invented the instrument. Credit for that is generally given to a Dutch stargazer who is almost forgotten today, Hans Lipperhay, who unveiled his basic telescope only the previous year, in 1608.

But Galileo, ever the practical perfectionist, had already improved upon the basic essentials and produced a variable-focus instrument that increased the size of the observed object by eight times.

Why he presented it first of all to the assembled Venetian senators is not clear. But perhaps the Venetians, who had business and commerce in their marrow, saw this instrument as a way to boost their glass lens industry. After all, Venice along with Florence, was the leading center for high-quality ground glass for spectacle lenses and magnifying glasses.

Certainly Galileo made money building and selling his telescope to eager customers, until his designs were overtaken in a relatively short time by more sophisticated types.

The telescope, of course, revolutionized astronomical observation and had a profound impact on overall scientific methodology, by allowing more exact mathematical calculations.

Blasphemous ‘Suncentricity’

It also brought into sharp focus the simmering dispute between those who followed the ancient belief of Greek and Egyptian proto-scientists that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that the planets revolved around it, and those who followed the Copernican theory that in fact our Earth is just one of a number of planets revolving around the sun.

Nicolaus Copernicus, the great Polish astronomer, had summarized his theories that the Earth revolved around the sun, instead of the other way around, some 60 years before Galileo intrigued the Venetian senators with his telescope.

Galileo, with his passion for exact observation and independent analysis, became ever more convinced through the use of his telescope that Copernicus was right. But it wasn’t long before this brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church.

Some churchmen began attacking Galileo in 1610, arguing that God had made the Earth the center of the universe as a home for man.

By 1616, the matter had come to the official attention of the church, with the formal condemnation of “suncentricity” as “false and contrary to scripture.”

Galileo was warned to steer clear of such heresy, which he did for a number of years. But in 1632 he published a defense of his views. This landed him in front of that sinister body, the Inquisition. The Holy Office, as it preferred to be known, tried him, found him guilty of being “vehemently” suspect of heresy, and placed him under house arrest.

It also forced him to recant, which he did. Not very brave perhaps, but practical to the end, he may have thought it best to be a live astronomer than a dead ideologue.

It took the church 359 years to rehabilitate Galileo Galilei. Only in 1992 did the Vatican formally acknowledge that it had been wrong and Galileo right.

The astronomer died at his home outside Florence, still under house arrest, in 1642.

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