Today in something is wrong on the Internet

When I was growing up one of the most widespread #histSTM myths, along with the claim that people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat and Stone Age people lived in holes in the ground, was that Galileo Galilei invented the telescope. This myth actually has an interesting history that goes all the way back to the publication of the Sidereus Nuncius. Some of Galileo’s critics misinterpreting what he had written asserted that he was claiming to have invented the telescope, an assertion that Galileo strongly denied in a latter publication. Whatever, as I said when I was growing up it was common knowledge that Galileo had invented the telescope. During the 1960s and 1970s as history of science slowly crept out of its niche and became more public and more popular this myth was at some point put out of its misery and buried discretely, where, I thought, nobody would find it again. I was wrong.

When I wrote my essay on the origins of the reflecting telescope for the online journal AEON, my editor, Corey Powell, who is himself a first class science writer and an excellent editor, asked me to provide a list of reference books to help speed up the process of fact checking my essay. I was more than happy to oblige, as even more embarrassing than a fact checker finding a factual error in what I had written, and yes even I make mistakes, would be a reader finding a real clangour after my essay had been published. As it turned out I hadn’t made any mistakes or if I did nobody has noticed yet. Imagine my surprise when I read an essay published two days ago on AEON that stated Galileo had invented the telescope. Hadn’t it been fact checked? Or if so, didn’t the fact checker know that this was a myth?

The essay in question is titled Forging Islamic Science and was written by Nir Shafir and edited by Sally Davies. The offending claim was at the beginning of the second paragraph:

Besides the colours being a bit too vivid, and the brushstrokes a little too clean, what perturbed me were the telescopes. The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo invented it in the 17th century, but almost no illustrations or miniatures ever depicted such an object.

I tweeted the following to both the author’s and AEON’s Twitter accounts:

If the author is complaining about forgers getting historical details wrong he really shouldn’t write, “The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo invented it in the 17th century…”

The author obviously didn’t understand my criticism and tweeted back:

There are references to the use of telescopes for terrestrial observations, mainly military, in the Ottoman Empire, such as in evliya çelebi.

I replied:

Galileo did not invent the telescope! He wasn’t even the first astronomer to use one for astronomical observations!

Whereupon Sally Davies chimed in with the following:

Thank you for drawing this to our attention! A bit of ambiguity here; we have tweaked the wording to say he ‘developed’ the telescope.

Sorry but no ambiguity whatsoever, Galileo did not in anyway invent the telescope and as I will explain shortly ‘developed’ is just as bad.

Today the author re-entered the fray with the following:

Thank you for bringing this up. It’s always good to get the minor details right.

The invention of the telescope is one of the most significant moments in the whole history of science and technology, so attributing its invention to the completely false person is hardly a minor detail!

About that ‘developed’. A more recent myth, which has grown up around Galileo and his use of the telescope, is that he did something special in some sort of way to turn this relatively new invention into a scientific instrument usable for astronomical observations. He didn’t. The telescope that Galileo used to discover the Moons of Jupiter differed in no way either scientifically or technologically from the one that Hans Lipperhey demonstrated to the assembled prominence at the peace conference in Den Hague sometime between the 25thand 29thof September 1608. Lipperhey’s invention was even pointed at the night sky, “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.”[1]

Both instruments consisted of a tube with a biconvex or plano-convex objective lens at one end and a bi-concave or plano-concave eyepiece lens at the other end. The eyepiece lens also had a mask or stop to cut down the distortion caused around the edges of the lens. The only difference was in the focal lengths of the lenses used producing different magnitudes of magnification. Galileo’s use of other lenses to increase magnification was nothing special; it had been done earlier than Galileo by Thomas Harriot and at least contemporaneous if not earlier by Simon Marius. It was also done by numerous others, who constructed telescopes independently in those first few years of telescopic astronomical observation. The claims that Galileo had developed, improved, specialised, etc., etc., the telescope are merely mythological elements of the more general Galileo hagiography. Modern research has even revealed that contrary to his own claims Galileo probably did not (re)-construct the telescope purely from having heard reports about it but had almost certainly seen and handled one before he attempted to construct one himself.

Going back to the offending AEON essay, Sally Davies could have saved herself and Nir Sharfir if she had simply changed the sentence to:

The telescope was known in the Middle East after it was invented  in the late 16th early 17th century…(even I make mistakes)

What I intended to write before my brain threw a wobbly was:

The telescope was known in the Middle East after it was invented in late 1608…

 She doesn’t even need to mention Lipperhey’s name if she wants to avoid the on going debates about who really did invent the telescope.








[1]Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to His Excellency Prince Maurits, Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, History of Technology, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Today in something is wrong on the Internet

  1. QI has at least twice given Galileo as inventor of the telescope – I wouldn’t mind if they weren’t so smug…

  2. laurel2000

    I thought Hans Lippershey invented the telescope in 1608, but you’re saying it was known in the Middle East in the late 16th century. Are you saying the telescope was invented before 1600? If so, who invented it, or don’t we know?

  3. Thanks. A blog written by a retired physicist quoted the same article and it was nice to be able to point readers to your post on the development of the telescope to point out that Galileo did not invent telescope.

    Galileo did develop quantum theory though, did he not?

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