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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 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...

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.


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Meet the Author

Bulent Atalay
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