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Sunday April 5, 2009

Master of the universe

The United Nations has declared 2009 International Year of Astronomy, and an exhibition in Florence, Italy, pays tribute to a man who dedicated his life to studying the sun, moon and stars.

IT is said that nothing is certain except for death and taxes, but there are few other things that we can count on for sure too. Thanks to years of astronomical exploration, we now know that the Earth and the other planets move in their own orbits round the sun, but the man who first publicly put forward that theory was convicted of heresy and forced to recant.

In the early 1600s, astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was known as the ‘‘Father of Astronomy’’, and became famous for questioning Christian biblical references which stated the sun and all the planets revolved around the Earth. Galileo supported a new theory, proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus, that the Earth and all the other planets revolved around the sun, and this got him into trouble with the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1609, Galileo had learned of the invention of an instrument that allowed the study of faraway objects and decided to make his own version which turned out to be more superior. This came to be known as the telescope and he made a series of profound discoveries using his new tool.

It was Galileo who noted and described the mountains and valleys on the surface of the moon, first made note of sunspots (magnetic spots on the surface of sun), the phases of Venus and the four largest moons of Jupiter named Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede – these are still referred to as the Gallilean moons in his honour.

He also concluded the surface of the moon was “rough and uneven, just like the surface of the Earth”, whereas Aristotle had claimed the moon was a perfect, smooth sphere. His observations with his new telescope also convinced him of the truth of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. Most astronomers and philosophers refused to believe Galileo could discover such mind-boggling concepts that threatened to turn science, as the world knew it then, on its head.

To coincide in part with Galileo’s first recorded astronomical observations using a telescope, the United Nations has scheduled 2009 to be the International Year of Astronomy.

The above are but a few of the discoveries of the man who was born in Pisa, Italy and went on to make sense of the universe.

According to Wikipedia, Galileo’s full name was Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei. He was educated in the Camaldolese Monastery at Vallombrosa, and considered priesthood as a career. He was known to be a pious Roman Catholic, but was said to have fathered three illegitimate children.

Galileo enrolled for a medical degree at the University of Pisa but did not complete this degree. He studied mathematics instead and he was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the university. In 1592, he moved to the University of Padua, teaching geometry, mechanics and astronomy until 1610.

His achievements also include creating the microscope in 1624, measuring the speed of light, and he was one of the first to understand sound frequency. Galileo also presented a theory to explain tides and put forward the basic principle of relativity which provided the framework for Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

For all this, he was dubbed the “Father of Modern Physics’ and the “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy’. Albert Einstein called him the “Father of Modern Science’’ and Prof Stephen Hawking (who, incidentally, was born on the 300th aniversary of Galileo’s death) insists that Galileo was more responsible for the birth of modern science than anyone else.

In his later years, legend had it that staring at the sun with his telescope destroyed his eyesight and rendered him blind in his last year of life. The truth is he was blinded by a combination of cataracts and glaucoma, yet his brilliant mind raced on and he still went on to design an escapement for the pendulum clock, a automatic tomato picker, a pocket comb that doubled as spoon, a candle and mirror instrument that reflected light and something very much like a ballpoint pen!

After Galileo was found guilty of heresy for his revolutionary claims, his definitive book, Dialogue between Two Chief World Systems, was banned. His prison term was commuted to house arrest from 1634 until he died in 1642, aged 77. It took 358 years for the heresy verdict to be lifted – this happened in 1992 when Pope John Paul II officially conceded the earth was not stationary!

If you’re an astronomy buff, the exhibition Galileo; Images of the Universe from Antiquity to Telescope at the Strozzi Palace in Florence provides an insight into this fascinating man and his work. It also takes visitors on a journey through time and space, and looks at the earliest concepts of the creation of the universe. Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greek theories are explored, together with stunning geometrical planetary motions expounded by Ptolemy, and later improved on by the Arabs and Christians.

The exhibition also looks at Copernicus’s heliocentric theory which inspired Galileo, the final triumph of the new view offered by Newton.

On show are archaeological items, scientific instruments, maps of the heavens and frescoes from Pompeii as never seen before. There are works by Botticelli, Rubens and Guercino, astronomical clocks, celestial atlases, illuminated manuscripts and books.

Important items include the huge astronomical tapestry from Toledo, the Farnese Atlas, a mysterious painting called Linder Gallery Interior and the star of the show – Galileo’s only surviving telescope!

‘Galileo; Images of the Universe from Antiquity to Telescope’ is on at the Strozzi Palace in Florence until Aug 30.

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