Human Journey

Brief History of the Astronomical Telescope I: Galileo Galilei and the unlikely fate of his middle finger…

Just as 2005, commemorating the Centennial of Einstein’s Annus Mirabilus (“Miracle Year”) was celebrated as the “Year of

Galileo's 20x Telescope, Museum of the History of Science, Florence

Physics,” 2009 commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the invention of the astronomical telescope was celebrated as the “Year of Astronomy.” It is generally known that the German-Dutch lens maker Hans Lipperchey had received the first patent for “the spyglass,” a 3-power refracting telescope in late 1608. And conventional wisdom has it, when the Italian mathematician/scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) heard about Lipperchey’s invention, he immediately set out to make his own instrument. He had only an inkling of Lipperchey’s design and had to improvise in creating his own version. Just a few months after the epochal invention in Holland, in early 1609 Galileo had in hand a much more powerful, ten-power, telescope; then a little later a twenty power telescope. Moreover, he would train his instrument, not just on terrestrial sites, but on the heavens as well. One telescope he made was able to contract distances 30-fold, so that he could see areas magnified 900-fold, and to see a volume of

The basic Galilean Telescope

stellar space magnified 27,000 times — or 27,000 times as many stars could be seen than with the naked eye. The visible universe had suddenly exploded in scales.

With his astronomical telescope Galileo discovered that the shadows on the moon were created by mountains and valleys; that Venus displayed phases, suggesting that it was orbiting, not the earth, but the sun; and that there existed spots on the otherwise pristine surface of the sun — these spots gliding gently across its surface, as the sun rotated

Galileo, a gifted artist, illustrated the moon as he saw it with his 20 power telescope, replete with its craters.

about its own axis. The picture he assembled offered compelling evidence for the veracity of the Copernican (heliocentric, i.e. sun centered) universe in distinction to the geocentric system endorsed by the Church. Galileo, just a year after making his first telescope, had discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter, and named them “the Medicean stars” in honor of his Florentine patrons, the Medici Family. Now we call these, Jupiter’s four largest satellites, the “Galilean Moons.” The total number of moons orbiting Jupiter has since swelled to 62, identified by massive modern telescopes and NASA fly-byes.

After the publication of his book, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, in 1632, however, Galileo found himself in deep trouble with the Italian Inquisition.

In 1610 he had made his first visit to Rome to face a heroes welcome for his early discoveries. In 1632, when he was ordered to Rome for a sixth and last visit, it was to face his Inquisitors. Remembering an incident from 1600 when the monk, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake for espousing Copernican views, Galileo wisely reversed course, claiming that he now “detested and abjured” his teachings of a sun centered universe. He saved his own life, but he was convicted of heresy, and condemned to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. A decade later, on June 8, 1642, he died a broken man, having gradually lost his sight from the damage he had done to the fovea in his eyes in his earlier solar observations. The Pope and the Cardinal Bellarmine, who had masterminded Galileo’s trial, obstructed his burial in a monumental tomb, a sepulcher, in the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce, in the company of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Dante… He was buried instead in a little room beneath the bell tower of the church, adjoining the Chapel of Saints Cosma and Damiano.

Galileo had always been a deeply devout Catholic, not out to challenge the authority of the Church as much as to promote science and reason over superstition and dogma. Intellectual honesty was of paramount importance. He wrote, “The Holy Spirit intended to teach us in the Bible how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

Almost a century, after his death when he was at least partially absolved, it was possible to inaugurate the monumental sepulcher and to move his remains to accompany those of other favorite sons of Florence. In a macabre incident, however, Galileo’s middle finger was removed by a gravedigger who was disinterring the remains. Fortunately, the finger was never

Galileo's middle finger (carpal and phalange). Museum of the History of Science, Florence

lost. After confirmation by DNA analysis, it was placed on permanent display at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, mounted and directed toward the heavens which were never very kind to him in life.

For 450 years the “Galileo Affair,” as it was known in the Church, had been regarded as a blemish in Church-science relations. Pope John Paul II, an ardent admirer of Galileo, organized a commission to revisit “the Affair.” After a careful study of the Inquisition’s proceedings the decision was announced. “Galileo was a great man.”

In the following series of short essays, we will examine the history and the science underlying the telescope, and conclude with a solution defying conventional wisdom regarding the creator of the first astronomical telescope, examining the hypothesis that a fully functioning astronomical telescope had been created almost a century before Galileo created his telescope from the inspiration he received from Hans Lipperchey’s spy glass.

For some of the slides and the drama of this discovery, I am deeply indebted to Prof. André Buys, nuclear engineer, amateur telescope maker and scientific sleuth extraordinaire, whom I first met in 2005.

 

Bulent Atalay, a scientist, artist and author, has been described by NPR, PBS and the Washington Post as a “Modern Renaissance Man.” He is the author of two successful books on the intersection of art, science and mathematics, with Leonardo, the pre-eminent Renaissance man, serving as the foil. His best selling book, "Math and the Mona Lisa," (Smithsonian Books, 2004) has appeared in 13 languages. Professor Atalay's academic background is in theoretical physics. He travels around the world lecturing at academic institutions and on cruise ships on the "A-subjects," art, archaeology, astrophysics, atomic physics and Ataturk, confessing that he knows much less about the "B-subjects," business, banking, biology and botany... He is the President of the Ataturk Society of America (ASA), dedicated to promoting Ataturk's ideals of science and reason over dogma and superstition, of a secular state with full equality of genders. For more details click on Bulent Atalay
  • Delilah Harvey

    Dear Bulent,
    What an interesting post! You have a brilliant mind, just like my close colleague Sophia, whom I think I will share this post with.

  • Bridget Plowright

    Dear Bulent

    Thanks for sending the link for this blog. I am a regular reader of National Geographic here in the UK, so will this be available in the UK version do you know?

    Bridget

  • john Maenhout

    Prof Bulent,
    I read your notes with a great deal of interest. I regularly read your book on Leonardo da Vinci, “Math and the Mona Lisa,” that you once sent me as a gift. It has helped me with my English. I wish you success with your new book, “The Miracle Year.”
    Warmest regards,
    John from Belgium.

  • Erdem Kutukoglu

    Dear Bulent Bey,

    What a wonderful narrative which revitalizes the historian DNAs in my blood. 🙂

    The history of science is surely a colorful one, though with many shades of grey and black inside.

    Your note, “One telescope he made was able to contract distances 30-fold, so that he could see areas magnified 900-fold, and to see a volume of stellar space magnified 27,000 times,” made me think of the vague terminology I used while describing the optical magnitude of my photo lenses. I guess I have to revisit my optics notes of high-school.

    Thank you very much for this brilliant piece.

    Sincerely,

    Erdem

  • sofia donenfeld

    I read the Blog and I extend to you my congratulations for
    your masterly and skillful research of two Great men
    that contributed so much in the development of Science.
    Many thanks ,
    SOFIA

  • Serghei Pakhomoff

    Dear Bulent,

    This is a very interesting article. Although, my knowledge of astronomy are not deep, I’ve read something about Galileo, his life, his relationship with Vatican, no doubt! When I was a guest of the relatives in Poland, my Polish relatives promised to show me the museum of Nickolae Kopernikus. It is located in former-East Prussia, where a few colleagues live (Graal, for example). Unfortunately, I did not have time to see the museum.
    It is very interesting to me to know you from a new side.

    Warm regards,
    Serghei

  • Michael

    Dear Bulent,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really love to astronomy but I am not that much educated. A telescope is an optical instrument comprised of a series of mirrors or lenses in order to gather more light, with a higher resolution and magnification than the naked eye.

    Refracting Telescopes

  • Abhijit Panja

    I’m pleased to get a rare information from you.Thank you so much.

  • Park McGraw

    Hello Bulent Atalay

    The diagram of the “basic Galilean Telescope”, implying from the placement of the rendered eye to represent the optical schematic of Galileo’s instrument is not correct. The telescope shown in this article being an afocal instrument, and as such, does not produce a focused image plane for the eye to view. The sort of optical configuration shown being used frequently in the form of a beam expander or compressor. The beam projecting past the last element in a parallel manner, the optical output being planar with respects to a planar input. The instrument used by Galileo yielding a virtual image, but none the less a system that resulted in converging rays producing a focused image, albeit virtual rays. The non inverted (normal orientation) image plane in Galileo’s telescope falling forward of the plano concave eyepiece element, anterior the tube, and not exterior the last optical element as one might expect to see in an optical system that results in a real image much like the majority of the commercial optical telescopes and microscopes.

  • Park McGraw

    Hello Bulent Atalay

    The diagram of the “basic Galilean Telescope”, implying from the placement of the rendered eye to represent the optical schematic of Galileo’s telescope is not correct. The telescope schematic shown in this article being an afocal instrument, and as such, does not produce a focused image plane for the eye to view. The sort of optical configuration shared being used frequently in the form of a beam expander or compressor. The beam projecting past the last element in a parallel manner, the optical output being planar with respects to a planar input. The instrument used by Galileo yielding a virtual image, but none the less a system that resulted in converging rays producing a focused image, albeit virtual rays. The non inverted (normal orientation) image plane in Galileo’s telescope falling forward of the plano concave eyepiece element, anterior the tube, and not exterior the last optical element as one might expect from an optical system that results in a real image much like the majority of the commercial optical telescopes, binoculars, and microscopes.

    • Thank you, Park. I am grateful for your detailed description of the basic Galilean Telescope that you’ve provided. If you send me a diagram, I will make it an addendum to that particular blog. Many thanks, and Happy New Year.

  • kanetra

    How did Galileo come across the inspiration for his telescope?

    • Hans Lippershey, an optician in Holland, is generally recognized for the invention of the refracting telescope in 1608. When Galileo heard a general description of Lippershey’s invention, he immediately set upon making his own instrument. But, since he did not have precise details, he had to improvise, and ended up creating a more powerful instrument. I believe, it was just a few months after Lippershey, in early 1609.

  • acne

    I am going to be sincere with you here. Informational content usually puts me to sleep, and I snore fairly loudly. Your content not only kept me awake, it intrigued me.

  • […] put his knowledge to practical use, grinding the lenses for improved telescopes that allowed him to make astronomical discoveries ahead of other scholars—spotting moons, finding […]

  • Anonymous

    O meu caso come

  • alex

    What impact did the telescope make?

  • David Jones

    Cardinal Bellarmine died in 1621, so had no role in Galileo’s second appearance before the Holy Inquisition or obstructing his burial. He headed the first hearing in 1616, from which the questionable (unsigned and not notarized) note was put in the file which forebade teaching Copernius that the second trial was based on.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media