The Galilean Revolution, 400 years later

Contributed by
Jan 7, 2010
<?xml encoding="utf-8" ?>

Four hundred years ago tonight, a man from Pisa, Italy took a newly-made telescope with a magnifying power of 33X, pointed it at one of the brighter lights in the sky, and changed mankind forever.

The man, of course, was Galileo, and the light he observed on January 7, 1610 was Jupiter. He spotted "three fixed stars" that were invisible to the eye near the planet, and a fourth a few days later.

Here is how he drew this, 400 years ago:

galileo_jupitersketch

He noted the stars moved around Jupiter as they followed it across the sky, and so was the first to figure out that other planets had moons like our own. It wasn't an easy observation; his telescope was still small, the field of view narrow (so not all the moons were visible at the same time), and the moons faint next to Jupiter's brilliant glare. But Galileo persisted, and figured it out. We call these four the Galilean moons in his honor: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

Here's how we see them today:

newhorizons_galileanmoons

The image above [click to embiggen] is from the New Horizons spacecraft as it shot past Jupiter in early 2007, showing all four moons. Each is scaled to show its true relative size to the others. It's impossible not to wonder what Galileo would have thought, knowing that just shy of 400 years after he made his first observations, we would fling our robotic proxies out into the solar system and get close up views of the objects he discovered.

Think of it! For all of time before, Jupiter was just a light in the sky. And then, forever after that night forty decades ago, it was a world, surrounded by more worlds.

[See more pictures of Jupiter and its moons in a gallery over at 80 Beats.]

Galileo went on to observe craters on the Moon, spots on the Sun, and the phases of Venus. It was that last that may have been his crowning achievement, because the way Venus showed phases meant it could not possibly orbit the Earth, and that it must orbit the Sun. The geocentric theory had held sway for over a thousand years, but Galileo proved it was wrong almost overnight. Of course, the Church wasn't thrilled with this, though I suspect they might have rolled with it if Galileo hadn't been such an arrogant jerk and published a manuscript insulting the Pope, a man who used to be his friend and supporter.

If there is a lesson in there, I leave it to my readers to suss it out.

Now, all these years later, a lot of legends exist over the man. He didn't invent the telescope, he wasn't the first to point it at the sky, and he wasn't even the first to publish his drawings. But he was a merciless self-promoter, and because of that we do remember him now (again, any lessons learned here are up to you). And it's not entirely unfair to do so; he was a tireless observer, a wonderful artist, a great inventor (he may not have been the first to build a telescope, but he made his far better than its predecessors) and a brilliant scientist who, even if he hadn't done so much for astronomy, would still be remembered today for his other work.

Tonight, just after sunset, Jupiter will be a glowing white beacon in the southwest. I have a Galileoscope, an inexpensive telescope created as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, an effort to get as many people on Earth to look up as possible. I think perhaps it would be fitting if I brave the subzero temperature outside, maybe for just a few minutes, and take a look at the mighty planet. Tonight's display is better than Galileo himself had it: all four moons will be perfectly arrayed, two on each side of Jupiter's face.

I'm not a very religious man, nor am I a very spiritual man. But I know there will still be a sense of connection, a sense of wonder that I will have tonight that I will share with a man long dead, but whose life and achievements still echo through time.