A widespread myth in the popular history of astronomy is that Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was the first or even the only astronomer to realise the potential of the newly invented telescope as an instrument for astronomy. This perception is very far from the truth. He was just one of a group of investigator, who realised the telescopes potential and all of the discoveries traditionally attributed to Galileo were actually made contemporaneously by several people, who full of curiosity pointed their primitive new instruments at the night skies. So why does Galileo usually get all of the credit? Quite simply, he was the first to publish.
Starting in the middle of 1609 various astronomers began pointing primitive Dutch telescopes at the night skies, Thomas Harriot (1560–1621) and his friend and student William Lower (1570–1615) in Britain, Simon Marius (1573–1625) in Ansbach, Johannes Fabricius (1587–1616) in Frisia, Odo van Maelcote (1572–1615) and Giovanni Paolo Lembo (1570–1618) in Rome, Christoph Scheiner (1573 or 1575–1650) in Ingolstadt and of course Galileo in Padua. As far as we can ascertain Thomas Harriot was the first and the order in which the others took up the chase is almost impossible to determine and also irrelevant, as it was who was first to publish that really matters and that was, as already stated, Galileo.
Harriot made a simple two-dimensional telescopic sketch of the moon in the middle of 1609.
Both Galileo and Simon Marius started making telescopic astronomical observations sometime late in the same year. At the beginning Galileo wrote his observation logbook in his Tuscan dialect and then on 7 January 1610 he made the discovery that would make him famous, his first observation of three of the four so-called Galilean moons of Jupiter.
Galileo realised at once that he had hit the jackpot and immediately changed to writing his observations in Latin in preparation for a publication. Simon Marius, who made the same discovery just one day later, didn’t make any preparations for immediate publication. Galileo kept on making his observations and collecting material for his publication and then on 12 March 1610, just two months after he first saw the Jupiter moons, his Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger of Starry Message, the original Latin is ambiguous) was published in Padua but dedicated to Cosimo II de Medici, Fourth Grand Duke of Tuscany. Galileo had already negotiated with the court in Florence about the naming of the moons; he named them the Medicean Stars thus taking his first step in turning his discovery into personal advancement.
What exactly did Galileo discover with his telescope, who else made the same discoveries and what effect did they have on the ongoing astronomical/cosmological debate? We can start by stating quite categorically that the initial discoveries that Galileo published in his Sidereus Nuncius neither proved the heliocentric hypothesis nor did they refute the geocentric one,
The first discovery that the Sidereus Nuncius contains is that viewed through the telescope many more stars are visible than to the naked-eye. This was already known to those, who took part in Lipperhey’s first ever public demonstration of the telescope in Den Haag in September 1608 and to all, who subsequently pointed a telescope of any sort at the night sky. This played absolutely no role in the astronomical/cosmological debate but was worrying for the theologians. Christianity in general had accepted both astronomy and astrology, as long as the latter was not interpreted deterministically, because the Bible says “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:” (Gen 1:14). If the lights in the heavens are signs from God to be interpreted by humanity, what use are signs that can only be seen with a telescope?
Next up we have the fact that some of the nebulae, indistinct clouds of light in the heavens, when viewed with a telescope resolved into dense groups of stars. Nebulae had never played a major role in Western astronomy, so this discovery whilst interesting did not play a major role in the contemporary debate. Simon Marius made the first telescopic observations of the Andromeda nebula, which was unknown to Ptolemaeus, but which had already been described by the Persian astronomer, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–986), usually referred to simply as Al Sufi. It is historically interesting because the Andromeda nebula was the first galaxy to be recognised outside of the Milky Way.
Galileo’s next discovery was that the moon was not smooth and perfect, as required of all celestial bodies by Aristotelian cosmology, but had geological feature, mountains and valleys, just like the earth i.e. the surface was three-dimensional and not two-dimensional, as Harriot had sketched it. This perception of Galileo’s is attributed to the fact that he was a trained painter used to creating light and shadows in paintings and he thus recognised that what he was seeing on the moons surface was indeed shadows cast by mountains.
As soon as he read the Sidereus Nuncius, Harriot recognised that Galileo was correct and he went on to produce the first real telescopic map of the moon.
Galileo’s own washes of the moon, the most famous illustrations in the Sidereus Nuncius, are in fact studies to illustrate his arguments and not accurate illustrations of what he saw.
That the moon was earth like and for some that the well-known markings on the moon, the man in the moon etc., are in fact a mountainous landscape was a view held by various in antiquity, such as Thales, Orpheus, Anaxagoras, Democritus, Pythagoras, Philolaus, Plutarch and Lucian. In particular Plutarch (c. 46–c. 120 CE) in his On the Face of the Moon in his Moralia, having dismissed other theories including Aristotle’s wrote:
Just as our earth contains gulfs that are deep and extensive, one here pouring in towards us through the Pillars of Herakles and outside the Caspian and the Red Sea with its gulfs, so those features are depths and hollows of the Moon. The largest of them is called “Hecate’s Recess,” where the souls suffer and extract penalties for whatever they have endured or committed after having already become spirits; and the two long ones are called “the Gates,” for through them pass the souls now to the side of the Moon that faces heaven and now back to the side that faces Earth. The side of the Moon towards heaven is named “Elysian plain,” the hither side, “House of counter-terrestrial Persephone.”
So Galileo’s discovery was not so sensational, as it is often presented. However, the earth-like, and not smooth and perfect, appearance of the moon was yet another hole torn in the fabric of Aristotelian cosmology.
Of course the major sensation in the Sidereus Nuncius was the discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter.
This contradicted the major premise of Aristotelian cosmology that all of the celestial bodies revolved around a common centre, his homo-centricity. It also added a small modicum of support to a heliocentric cosmology, which had suffered from the criticism, if all the celestial bodies revolve around the sun, why does the moon continue to revolve around the earth. Now Jupiter had not just one but four moons, or satellites as Johannes Kepler called them, so the earth was no longer alone in having a moon. As already stated above Simon Marius discovered the moons of Jupiter just one day later than Galileo but he didn’t publish his discovery until 1614. A delay that would later bring him a charge of plagiarism from Galileo and ruin his reputation, which was first restored at the end of the nineteenth century when an investigation of the respective observation data showed that Marius’ observations were independent of those of Galileo.
The publication of the Sidereus Nuncius was an absolute sensation and the book quickly sold out. Galileo went, almost literally overnight, from being a virtually unknown, middle aged, Northern Italian, professor of mathematics to the most celebrated astronomer in the whole of Europe. However, not everybody celebrated or accepted the truth of his discoveries and that not without reason. Firstly, any new scientific discovery needs to be confirmed independently by other. If Simon Marius had also published early in 1610 things might have been different but he, for whatever reasons, didn’t publish his Mundus Jovialis (The World of Jupiter) until 1614. Secondly there was no scientific explanation available that explained how a telescope functioned, so how did anyone know that what Galileo and others were observing was real? Thirdly, and this is a very important point that often gets ignored, the early telescopes were very, very poor quality suffering from all sorts of imperfections and distortions and it is almost a miracle that Galileo et al discovered anything with these extremely primitive instruments.
As I stated in the last episode, the second problem was solved by Johannes Kepler in 1611 with the publication of his Dioptrice.
A book that Galileo, always rather arrogant, dismissed as unreadable. This was his triumph and nobody else was going to muscle in on his glory. The third problem was one that only time and improvements in both glass making and the grinding and polishing of lenses would solve. In the intervening years there were numerous cases of new astronomical discoveries that turned out to be artefacts produced by poor quality instruments.
The first problem was the major hurdle that Galileo had to take if he wanted his discoveries to be taken seriously. Upon hearing of Galileo discoveries, Johannes Kepler in Prague immediately put pen to paper and fired off a pamphlet, Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo (Conversation with the Starry Messenger) congratulating Galileo, welcoming his discoveries and stating his belief in their correctness, which he sent off to Italy. Galileo immediately printed and distributed a pirate copy of Kepler’s work, without even bothering to ask permission, it was after all a confirmation from the Imperial Mathematicus and Kepler’s reputation at this time was considerably bigger than Galileo’s.
However, Kepler’s confirmations were based on faith and not personal confirmatory observations, so they didn’t really solve Galileo’s central problem. Help came in the end from the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano.
Odo van Maelcote and Giovanni Paolo Lembo had already been making telescopic astronomical observations before the publication of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius. Galileo also enjoyed good relations with Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), the founder and head of the school of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, who had been instrumental in helping Galileo to obtain the professorship in Padua. Under the direction of Christoph Grienberger (1561–1636), soon to be Clavius’ successor as professor for mathematics at the Collegio, the Jesuit astronomers set about trying to confirm all of Galileo’s discoveries. This proved more than somewhat difficult, as they were unable, even with Galileo’s assistance via correspondence, to produce an instrument of sufficient quality to observe the moons of Jupiter. In the end Antonio Santini (1577–1662), a mathematician from Venice, succeeded in producing a telescope of sufficient quality for the task, confirmed for himself the existence of the Jupiter moons and then sent a telescope to the Collegio Romano, where the Jesuit astronomers were now also able to confirm all of Galileo’s discovery. Galileo could not have wished for a better confirmation of his efforts, nobody was going to doubt the word of the Jesuits.
In March 1611 Galileo travelled to Rome, where the Jesuits staged a banquet in his honour at which Odo van Maelcote held an oration to the Tuscan astronomer. Galileo’s strategy of dedicating the Sidereus Nuncius to Cosimo de Medici and naming the four moons the Medicean Stars paid off and he was appointed court mathematicus and philosophicus in Florence and professor of mathematics at the university without any teaching obligations; Galileo had arrived at the top of the greasy pole but what goes up must, as we will see, come down.