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As Dennis Overbye reports from Phildelphia in the NY Times, one of only two remaining telescopes of the many constructed by Galileo has been allowed to leave Florence.
It will be seen in the United States at the Franklin Institute beginning in April.
Galileo was one of history’s great troublemakers, and he helped to change the way we see the world.
By turning spyglasses like this on to the sky 400 years ago, he was able to see mountains on the Moon and satellites whirling around Jupiter. His discoveries led to ideas that were in contravention of the Catholic Church approved Earth-centered cosmology, which was based on Aristotle, Ptolemy and the Bible.
Galileo built dozens such telescopes, but only two survive.
In order to accomplish high magnification on the planets, he had to settle for seeing a very small slice of the sky — about half the diameter of a full Moon, in the case of this telescope.
This makes it correspondingly difficult to find anything in the sky. Mapping the Moon, for example, would have required moving the telescope.
Galileo began to build telescopes, gradually increasing in magnification, in the fall of 1609, after hearing that a Dutch spectacles-maker, Hans Lipperhey, had built a spyglass. He may have made his first observations of the Moon in the month of October, according to Owen Gingerich, a historian of astronomy at Harvard.
At the same time, in England, Thomas Harriot was observing and mapping the Moon, although he failed to publish anything.
According to Overbye, the telescope in Philadelphia
looked like the kind of toy telescope a child might have made with scissors and tape — a lumpy, mottled tube about as long as a golf club and barely wider in girth, the color of 400-year-old cardboard, burning with age.
But near one knobby end was a bit of writing…
The writing sent Derrick Pitts into rapture. Pitts is the chief astronomer of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He translated “piedi 3;” those words inform us that the tube’s focal length is three feet. They were inscribed by Galileo himself.
The telescope in Philadelphia is made of two half-cyliners of wood wrapped with varnished paper and held together with rings of wire. The second remaining telescope, still in Florence, is made of leather.
Only these two — of the dozens of spyglasses built by Galileo — have survived, and both have never been out of Florence since his time. Until this week.
The International Year of Astronomy: 400 Years
The Florence institute that is home to both remaining telescopes is undergoing renovations this year. It seemed an opportune time to send at least one on a road show.
This wooden spyglass will be the centerpiece of “Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy,” which opens April 4 at the Franklin Institute. It will run until September, as part of the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating 400 years of modern astronomy.
The show will then travel to Stockholm in time for the Nobel Prize announcements in October, returning to Florence for the reopening of the “Galileo Museum, Institute for the History of Science.”
Galileo and the Medicis
Galileo knew he had ammunition to upend the universe. Harriot had not published. Galileo did, rushing into print in March 1610 with his report, Siderus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”).
He sent a copy of the book, along with a telescope he’d been using, to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de Medici.
According to Dr Gingerich, the pamphlet amounted to a job application to the Medici family. To sweeten the argument, Galileo named the four satellites of Jupiter for members of the Medici family — one of the earliest uses of what we now call “branding.”
Other planets were gods and goddesses, says Paolo Galluzzi, director of the Florence institute. “The only humans in the sky were Medicis.”
The ploy worked: Cosimo II hired him as his astronomer, elevating him from a poor professor at the University of Padua to a celebrity. He was now making the equivalent of $300,000 a year, according to Galluzzi.
Galileo returned the favor by giving Cosimo another telescope clad in red leather and stamped with decorations.
But the astronomer stumbled when he had to deal with the Church. He claimed to be a good Catholic. In 1633 — after having been enjoined 17 years previously from promoting his views — Galileo was summoned to Rome for a trial.
He was convicted of holding views “contrary to Scripture,” and declared “vehemently suspect of heresy.”
And he recanted. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, the enduring symbol of the persecution of science by religion.
He died in 1642, probably outliving many of his telescopes, writes Overbye.
Dr Giorgio Strano, curator at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, escorted the telescope to Philadelphia. He allowed some visitors to spend only a little time with it before locking it up.
But Overbye and Dr Pitts took a replica of the telescope, itself an antique, to the roof for a Galileo experience. It was less than successful on that cloudy night, writes Overby, even though Dr Pitts tried to guide his aim. And “after half an hour my arms and shoulders were aching from keeping the telescope aloft.”
Sirius never did swim into his view. “It’s not easy being Galileo.”
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