Sometime I just wonder why I bother. I sit in my little corner of the Internet trying to convince people to ditch the myths that they believe to be history of science and instead to replace them with the true facts. Then along comes the once upon a time noble BBC and post on their website, History Extra, the article 12 giant leaps for mankind – from carnivorism to Magna Carta in which:
We asked 12 historians to nominate alternative moments in the past that they consider to be great leaps for mankind. Interviews by Rob Attar
Several of the twelve historians are suitably famous: For example Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Jerry Brotton, Allan Chapman, Patricia Fara and Jim Bennett all of whose work I know and respect.
However a Colin Russell, who I don’t know and can’t find with the help of Wikipedia and Google, delivered up: Galileo explores the heavens with his telescope – Italy, 1609, mythology pure:
I will make a line-by-line analysis of Collin Russell’s words of wisdom:
When Galileo became the first person to turn a telescope to the skies, it changed our view of the universe.
Galileo was not the first person to turn a telescope to the skies. Already in the last week of September 1608 as Hans Lipperhey demonstrated his new invention to the assembled prominence in The Hague it was turned to the skies “and even the stars which normally are not visible for us, because of the scanty proportion and feeble sight of our eyes, can be seen with this instrument.” The quote is taken from Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to his Excellency Prince Maurits, Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608, the French newsletter that carried the news of the advent of the telescope throughout Europe.
If instead he meant the first astronomer/astrologer/mathematician/natural philosopher or whatever then that honour goes to Thomas Harriot and not to Galileo. There is fairly strong but not conclusive evidence that Simon Marius also turned his telescope to the heavens before Galileo.
He discovered new facts about the Sun, Moon and planets, which were totally incompatible with the old theory that the sky above Earth was unchanging and perfect.
This sentence is actually true but that had been substantial evidence that the heavens were not unchanging throughout the sixteenth century, before the invention of the telescope, with the observation of various comets and a nova all of which were determined by various expert observers to be supraluna, the earliest of these already in the 1530s. The telescopic observations merely added more evidence of this fact.
Instead they strongly supported the rival and newer heliocentric theory of Copernicus.
These telescopic observations seriously damaged the accepted Aristotelian cosmology but had not effect on the prevailing Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy and in no way supported the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. The telescopic observations of the phases of Venus, not mentioned by Russell, made contemporaneously by Harriot, Marius, Lembo and Galileo were not compatible with the Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy but were just as compatible with a Tychonic or semi-Tychonic geo-heliocentric system as with a heliocentric one and for various other empirical reasons most astronomers chose the geo-heliocentric models.
Galileo’s telescope stimulated him to write his contentious book Two World Systems (1630), which more than anything else helped to establish Copernicanism.
Initially Galileo’s telescope stimulated him to write his Sidereus Nuncius (1610), which, as he was well aware, offered no conclusive support for a heliocentric model. His Dialogo (Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World System) is not centred on the telescopic observations, although the play an important role, but on his ill-advised and ill-fated theory of the tides; an ingenious but fatally flawed empirical theory supposed to support a moving earth. The book also suffers from the fact that it pits the Ptolemaic geocentric model against the Copernican heliocentric one, whereas in fact as it was published the two chief world systems were a Tychonic geo-heliocentric one with diurnal rotation and Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric system. Galileo was simply behind the times!
This book in no way “more than anything else helped to establish Copernicanism.” Firstly Copernicanism was never established but had by 1630 been superceded by Kepler’s elliptical astronomy and secondly the two books that did most to establish a heliocentric model, before there was actually empirical proof for it, were Kepler’s Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae, an unfortunate title as it is about his own system and not Copernicus’, and his Tabulae Rudolphinae.
Once again we have someone incorrectly attributing the whole of early telescopic astronomy to Galileo. I would in fact agree with Russell that the invention of the telescope and its application to astronomy could be considered as a “giant leap for mankind”, however to attribute that giant leap to Galileo alone is pure hagiography and historically false. I would have started with the invention of the telescope by Lipperhey and others in 1608 and then moved on to its early application in astronomy by Harriot, Marius, Galileo, Lembo, Grienberger, and others. In fact it is the very fact that those early observations were made independently by several astronomers that led to them being accepted very rapidly by the astronomical community.