As anyone interested in astronomy or its history should know Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto are not only the names of four of Zeus’ lovers (or rape victims!) but also the names suggested privately by Kepler and publicly by Simon Marius for the four largest of Jupiter’s moons discovered on 7th and 8th January 1610 respectively by Galileo Galilei and Simon Marius. It must have been an exhilarating experience when they were first observed by those two pioneers of Renaissance telescopic astronomy and it is still an exciting one for an amateur astronomer in the twenty-first-century as related by Clive Thompson in a blog post at The Message. Unfortunately Thompson then goes on to complete misinterpret what that original discovery, four hundred years ago, meant for the cosmology and astronomy of the times. This is a topic I’ve dealt with before but it seems to be one that needs to be addressed at regular intervals like a game of #histsci Whac-A-Mole. What exactly did Thompson say that needs to be banged on the head?
Siderius [sic] Nuncius was a powerful piece of evidence that Copernicus was right: The Earth wasn’t the center of our solar system. The sun was, and the planets revolved around it. Astronomers had been gradually warming up to the idea, and even some church authorities had accepted the Copernican system as a mathematical theory. But by showing that Jupiter had its own moons — that a planet could be a mini-system of its own — Galileo offered something rather more: Electrifying proof [emphasis in original] of the Copernican idea. You could argue endlessly (and people did) about the geometry and math of various systems explaining how the stars moved through the sky. It was just conjecture.
But proof — that’s different. Once people put their eyes to the telescope and saw those moons circling Jupiter, they had the same whoa-dude reaction that I had on the sidewalks of Brooklyn. The solar system got real. So real, in fact, that the church began to panic; and since Galileo went on to use his telescope to amass even more evidence against geocentrism, including the phases of Venus, religious authorities eventually stepped in and demanded he recant, or else.
To explain what is wrong with the above we first need to know what the accepted view of the cosmos in the first decade of the seventeenth-century. The standard model of the age was an uneasy alliance between Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy. I say uneasy because the two systems were not actually compatible, something that the scholars of the period knew but chose, mostly, to ignore. It was this geocentric mish-mash that the handful of Copernicans and Tychonians were trying to dethrone. So what exactly was the scientific significance of the Galilei-Marius discovery of the Jupiter moons?
The discovery of the four principal moons of Jupiter didn’t actually have any direct relevance, either positive or negative, for Copernican heliocentricity. What it did do was to refute a central tenet of Aristotelian cosmology that of homo-centricity. Aristotelian cosmology stated that all celestial bodies revolve around the same central point, the earth. The discovery of the moons of Jupiter of course showed this to be totally wrong. Surprisingly this did little or no damage to Ptolemaic astronomy, as this was viewed by strict Aristotelians to already contradict this fundamental principle. In Ptolemaic astronomy the seven planets revolve around the centres of their respective epicycles, which are in turn carried around the earth, actually centred on a point other than the earth, on their deferents. This in the opinion of some Aristotelians was definitely not homo-centricity. This contradiction between the two systems of thought led to various revivals of concentric or homo-centric astronomy over the centuries the most recent being in the sixteenth-century barely a decade earlier than Copernicus’ publication of De revolutionibus. In fact Christoph Clavius, the leading proponent of Ptolemaic astronomy in 1610, regarded the homocentric astronomy of Giovanni Battista Amico and Girolamo Fracastoro to be a greater threat that Copernican heliocentricity and was quite happy to have it shot down by Jupiter’s moons.
Put very bluntly the discovery of the moons of Jupiter by Galileo and Marius was in no way what so ever a proof of the Copernican idea, something of which Galileo was very much aware and he did not try to present it as being one. Marius didn’t even consider it as he was a proponent of the Tychonic system to which he remained true all of his life.
The situation is of course different with the discovery of the phases of Venus. This discovery made independently by Thomas Harriot, Simon Marius, Galileo Galilei and Giovanni Paolo Lembo, the latter a Jesuit astronomer in Rome who probably discovered the phases before Galileo, effectively killed of a pure Ptolemaic astronomy as it proved that Venus, and probably Mercury by analogy (it would be some decades before the phases of Mercury were observed), orbited the sun and not the earth. Once again this is not in anyway a proof of the Copernican system, as there were other competing systems, the Heracleidian, in which Mercury and
Jupiter Venus orbit the sun, which, along with the other planets, orbits the earth and the Tychonic in which all the planets except the moon orbit the sun which then orbits the earth, that were conform with the new telescopic discovery. In fact due to the very real unsolved physical problems presented by the concept of a moving earth most astronomers now chose the Tychonic model and not the Copernican one.
Thompson’s final comment about the Church panicking and forcing Galileo to recant is just pure historical hogwash. Any new empirical evidence needs to be confirmed by independent observers. It’s all very well for Professor Galilei the little known mathematicus from Padua to come along and say that he has discovered all of these wonderful things in the heavens with this new fangled device from Holland, if nobody else can see them. What is required is that other independent observers confirm that they too can see all that Signor Galilei claims to have seen. Given the extremely poor quality of the available telescopes and the optical limits of the Dutch or Galilean telescope this was not an easy task. Popular histories criticise contemporaries who failed to see what Galileo had seen but such critics have obviously never tried to observe the moons of Jupiter with a modern Galilean telescope with state-of-the-art good quality lenses, let alone one with very shitty quality seventeenth-century lenses. It is bloody difficult to put it mildly. So who in the end did provide the scientific confirmation that Galileo so desperately needed for his telescopic claims? This confirmation was delivered by the Jesuit professors of the Collegio Romano, the Vatican’s own astronomers. Doesn’t quite fit the picture of a Church in panic, does it?
The true reasons for that oh so notorious trial are far too complex so that I’m not going to deal with them here but I will just say that they have more to do with politics and authority than science. That however is the subject for another blog post on another day.