Image: SXS

Music of the Spheres

When scientists detected gravitational waves, “astronomy grew ears.” /

"As the eyes, said I, seem formed for studying astronomy, so do the ears seem formed for harmonious motions: and these seem to be twin sciences to one another." — Plato, The Republic.

Galileo was wrong.

That was the famous judgment issued 400 years ago this month by the Inquisition. He was ordered to abandon his opinion about Copernican theory, that “the sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.”

Such an idea, the committee of theologians said, “is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical.”

You’ve probably heard the story. Galileo had made the telescope famous just seven years earlier. He looked at the distant lights that had enthralled humans for millennia and found mountains on the Earth’s moon. Sunspots. Moons around Jupiter. Masses of stars forming clouds of nebulae. And he found that Venus has phases, like our moon. Which meant it orbited the sun, not the Earth.

And you’ve probably heard that Galileo wasn’t the first with a telescope. Wasn’t the first to see sunspots. Wasn’t the first to map the moon. You might know that the science-vs.-religion aspects of his fight have been dramatically overstated. That he was often a self-promoting braggart who treated his questioners as fools.

But give the man credit. Galileo was right. Venus orbits the sun. So does Earth.

Galileo was wrong, too.

In 1616, just days before the Inquisition’s declaration, Galileo wrote to Cardinal Alessandro Orsini, arguing his proof that the Earth moves. But rather than pointing to the heavens, Galileo pointed to the sea. The tides, he said, could only really be explained by Earth’s orbit around the sun and its daily rotation. ...

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Issue 42 / February 18, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from February 18, 2016

    Issue 42: A surprise DNA test, an unexpected power plant, and a breakthrough chirp. /

  2. Around the World in 46 Chromosomes

    I expected to discover myself in my DNA test. But I found us all. /

  3. Why Solar Power Might Get a Lot More Green

    It turns out that Popeye was right all along. /

  4. Little Blessing for My Floater

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  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 42: Links to amazing stuff.

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