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Galelei Galileo and the Telescope


Galileo Galilei was born at Pisa in 1564. The most scientific part of his work dealt with terrestrial dynamics; but one of those fortunate chances which happen only to really great men put him in the way of originating a new branch of astronomy.

The laws of motion had not been correctly defined. The only man of Galileo’s time who seems to have worked successfully in the same direction as himself was that Admirable Crichton of the Italians, Leonardo da Vinci. Galileo cleared the ground. It had always been noticed that things tend to come to rest; a ball rolled on the ground, a boat moved on the water, a shot fired in the air. Galileo realised that in all of these cases a resisting force acts to stop the motion, and he was the first to arrive at the not very obvious law that the motion of a body will never stop, nor vary its speed, nor change its direction, except by the action of some force.

It is not very obvious that a light body and a heavy one fall at the same speed (except for the resistance of the air). Galileo proved this on paper, but to convince the world he had to experiment from the leaning tower of Pisa.

At an early age he discovered the principle of isochronism of the pendulum, which, in the hands of Huyghens from Holland in the middle of the seventeenth century, led to the invention of the pendulum clock, perhaps the most valuable astronomical instrument ever produced.

These and other discoveries in dynamics may seem very obvious now; but it is often the most every-day matters which have been found to elude the inquiries of ordinary minds, and it required a high order of intellect to unravel the truth and discard the stupid maxims scattered through the works of Aristotle and accepted on his authority. A blind worship of scientific authorities has often delayed the progress of human knowledge, just as too much “instruction” of a youth often ruins his “education.” Grant, in his history of Physical Astronomy, has well said that “the sagacity and skill which Galileo displays in resolving the phenomena of motion into their constituent elements, and hence deriving the original principles involved in them, will ever assure to him a distinguished place among those who have extended the domains of science.”

But it was work of a different kind that established Galileo’s popular reputation. In 1609 Galileo heard that a Dutch spectacle-maker had combined a pair of lenses so as to magnify distant objects. Working on this hint, he solved the same problem, first on paper and then in practice. So he came to make one of the first telescopes ever used in astronomy. No sooner had he turned it on the heavenly bodies than he was rewarded by such a shower of startling discoveries as forthwith made his name the best known in Europe. He found curious irregular black spots on the sun, revolving round it in twenty-seven days; hills and valleys on the moon; the planets showing discs of sensible size, not points like the fixed stars; Venus showing phases according to her position in relation to the sun; Jupiter accompanied by four moons; Saturn with appendages that he could not explain, but unlike the other planets; the Milky Way composed of a multitude of separate stars.

His fame flew over Europe like magic, and his discoveries were much discussed—and there were many who refused to believe. Cosmo de Medici induced him to migrate to Florence to carry on his observations. He was received by Paul V, the Pope, at Rome, to whom he explained his discoveries.

He thought that these discoveries proved the truth of the Copernican theory of the Earth’s motion; and he urged this view on friends and foes alike. Although in frequent correspondence with Kepler, he never alluded to the New Astronomy, and wrote to him extolling the virtue of epicycles. He loved to argue, never shirked an encounter with any number of disputants, and laughed as he broke down their arguments.

Through some strange course of events, not easy to follow, the Copernican theory, whose birth was welcomed by the Church, had now been taken up by certain anti-clerical agitators, and was opposed by the cardinals as well as by the dignitaries of the Reformed Church. Galileo — a good Catholic — got mixed up in these discussions, although on excellent terms with the Pope and his entourage. At last it came about that Galileo was summoned to appear at Rome, where he was charged with holding and teaching heretical opinions about the movement of the earth; and he then solemnly abjured these opinions. There has been much exaggeration and misstatement about his trial and punishment, and for a long time there was a great deal of bitterness shown on both sides. But the general verdict of the present day seems to be that, although Galileo himself was treated with consideration, the hostility of the Church to the views of Copernicus placed it in opposition also to the true Keplerian system, and this led to unprofitable controversies. From the time of Galileo onwards, for some time, opponents of religion included the theory of the Earth’s motion in their disputations, not so much for the love, or knowledge, of astronomy, as for the pleasure of putting the Church in the wrong. This created a great deal of bitterness and intolerance on both sides. Among the sufferers was Giordano Bruno, a learned speculative philosopher, who was condemned to be burnt at the stake.

Galileo died on Christmas Day, 1642—the day of Newton’s birth. The further consideration of the grand field of discovery opened out by Galileo with his telescopes must be now postponed, to avoid discontinuity in the history of the intellectual development of this period, which lay in the direction of dynamical, or physical, astronomy.

Until the time of Kepler no one seems to have conceived the idea of universal physical forces controlling terrestrial phenomena, and equally applicable to the heavenly bodies. The grand discovery by Kepler of the true relationship of the Sun to the Planets, and the telescopic discoveries of Galileo and of those who followed him, spread a spirit of inquiry and philosophic thought throughout Europe, and once more did astronomy rise in estimation; and the irresistible logic of its mathematical process of reasoning soon placed it in the position it has ever since occupied as the foremost of the exact sciences.

The practical application of this process of reasoning was enormously facilitated by the invention of logarithms by Napier. He was born at Merchistoun, near Edinburgh, in 1550, and died in 1617. By this system the tedious arithmetical operations necessary in astronomical calculations, especially those dealing with the trigonometrical functions of angles, were so much simplified that Laplace declared that by this invention the life-work of an astronomer was doubled.

Jeremiah Horrocks (born 1619, died 1641) was an ardent admirer of Tycho Brahe and Kepler, and was able to improve the Rudolphine tables so much that he foretold a transit of Venus, in 1639, which these tables failed to indicate, and was the only observer of it. His life was short, but he accomplished a great deal, and rightly ascribed the lunar inequality called evection to variations in the value of the eccentricity and in the direction of the line of apses, at the same time correctly assigning the disturbing force of the Sun as the cause. He discovered the errors in Jupiter’s calculated place, due to what we now know as the long inequality of Jupiter and Saturn, and measured with considerable accuracy the acceleration at that date of Jupiter’s mean motion, and indicated the retardation of Saturn’s mean motion.

Horrocks’ investigations, so far as they could be collected, were published posthumously in 1672, and seldom, if ever, has a man who lived only twenty-two years originated so much scientific knowledge.

At this period British science received a lasting impetus by the wise initiation of a much-abused man, Charles II, who founded the Royal Society of London, and also the Royal Observatory of Greeenwich, where he established Flamsteed as first Astronomer Royal, especially for lunar and stellar observations likely to be useful for navigation. At the same time the French Academy and the Paris Observatory were founded. All this within fourteen years, 1662-1675.

Meanwhile gravitation in general terms was being discussed by Hooke, Wren, Halley, and many others. All of these men felt a repugnance to accept the idea of a force acting across the empty void of space. Descartes (1596-1650) proposed an ethereal medium whirling round the sun with the planets, and having local whirls revolving with the satellites. As Delambre and Grant have said, this fiction only retarded the progress of pure science. It had no sort of relation to the more modern, but equally misleading, “nebular hypothesis.” While many were talking and guessing, a giant mind was needed at this stage to make things clear.