Christian History Home > Blog > 2009 > August > Six Wrong Things You Thought When You Heard Galileo's Name This Week
Six Wrong Things You Thought When You Heard Galileo's Name This Week
Happy 400th anniversary of not-quite-a-milestone in science!
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I've got to admit: Google's Galileo logo on Tuesday was pretty cool. The site explained that it celebrating the "400th Anniversary of Galileo's First Telescope."
Well, that's accurate in its generality if not in the specifics. On August 25, 1609, Galileo first demonstrated his "spyglass" to officials in Venice. He apparently created it sometime earlier.
Yes, that's an annoying nitpick that completely misses the point of the celebration. Let's call Google close enough. But far less accurate are many of the other big "facts" that went through people's minds when they heard of the anniversary this week.
1. Galileo invented the telescope.
No. Others had figured out that if you put two lenses together you could see distant objects. Dutch lensmaker Hans Lipperhey applied for a patent in 1608. Galileo's was better. But it wasn't his first. As he later wrote:
About ten months ago a report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed a spyglass by means of which visible objects, though very distant from the eye of the observer, were distinctly seen as if nearby. [The report] caused me to apply myself wholeheartedly to inquire into the means by which I might arrive at the invention of a similar instrument. This I did shortly afterwards, my basis being the theory of refraction. First I prepared a tube of lead, at the ends of which I fitted two glass lenses, both plane on one side while on the other side was one spherically convex and the other concave. Then placing my eye near the concave lens I perceived objects satisfactorily large and near, for they appeared three times closer and nine times larger than when seen with the naked eye alone. Next I constructed another one, more accurate, which represented objects as enlarged more than sixty times. 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.
Well, eventually, anyway. National Geographic describes the version that Galileo took to the Venetian leaders like this: "Made of wood and leather, Galileo's telescope had eight-times magnification, a convex main lens, and a concave eyepiece that—unlike other telescopes of the period—presented the image the right way up."
By the way, the word telescope wasn't used until 1611.
2. So he didn't invent it, but he was the first to use it to look into space.
Actually, he told the Venetian officials that it was for terrestrial purposes. Oxford science historian Alan Chapman told National Geographic, "Galileo [took] a number of senators up to one of the bell towers in Venice where you can see ships out in the lagoon." At the time, Venetian vessels were being attacked by the Turks. As Saswato R. Das wrote in The New York Times this week, the telescope let watchmen "see ships sailing into Venice's harbor a full two hours before they became visible to the naked eye."
Thomas Harriot meanwhile, was using a telescope to make sketches of the moon's surface. If you wanted to celebrate that 400th anniversary, too late: it was July 26.
3. Well, "firsters" often aren't first. The important thing is that when he did look into space and published his findings that the earth really wasn't the center of the universe, it caused outrage throughout Christendom.
"It's tempting to see it representing a fundamental break in the relations between science and religion, but I don't think it represented anything of the sort," says science historian Ron Numbers, editor of the recently published Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Harvard University Press). "In fact, at the time, it aroused relatively little interest. It was only in later decades and centuries that it came to be seen as a representation of what supposedly happens to scientific pioneers when they dare to try to correct the church's teachings."
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