Sunday, May 13, 2007

Galileo Stands Vigil


This photo was taken April 24--everything in the background is now blackened by fire. Fortunately Griffith Observatory is protected by this totem of great astronomers. Galileo stands in the place of honour facing the planetarium dome. On the lawn and courtyard the planetary orbits are depicted to scale, orbiting the Sun as Galileo believed following the ellipses of his friend Kepler.

From childhood Galileo was curious about many things. His professors at Pisa could not deal with his inquisitive mind. Even today a student who wishes to learn something new is considered a threat. Galileo was forced to leave university before graduating for financial reasons. It is fortunate that he found a career teaching, for today someone without a degree would not even be allowed to teach school. (MIT's Dean of Admissions doesn't count.)

Galileo did not start his career believing that Earth circles the Sun. When a foreign scientist visited Italy to lecture on Copernican Theory, Galileo avoided the lectures. Only by talking with colleagues did Galileo realise that Copernicus might be on to something. He then realised that believers in Ptolemy had converted to Copernicus, not a single believer in the Copernican system had converted back to Ptolemy. Logically Galileo chose to join the converted.

Even as a student, Galileo gained detractors. Later some would write whole books attacking his theories. Others would claim credit for Galileo's discoveries. Today they would have the internet to spread nasty rumours. Though Galileo considered Pope Urban a friend, people whispered rumours in the Pope's ear that Galileo's book was satirised him. For these and other reasons, Galileo would be tried and sentenced to house arrest.

The 10 years of house arrest could have been worse. His friend the archibishop of Siena offered to keep Galileo as a guest. After a stay in the palace at Siena, Galileo was allowed to return to his own villa. His home had a tower suitable for observing the stars. Griffith Observatory contains a copy of Galileo's telescope. True discoveries outlast troubled times.

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