Galileo's controversial moon drawings

galileo-moon-phases.jpg

I'll be honest, I bailed on the historic Solstice lunar eclipse last night. I have a good excuse. It was cloudy in Minneapolis when I went to bed, and likely to remain that way. Getting up in the middle of the night to stare at cloud cover is not exactly thrilling. Sure, a winter Solstice lunar eclipse hadn't happened in the Northern Hemisphere since 1638. Ah, well. Come the Singularity, I'll hit the next one.

Speaking of the 1600s, though, check out these beautiful drawings of the phases of the moon. They're thought to be the handiwork of Galileo, himself. And, while they look pretty basic, these pictures actually represent some big, scary risk-taking. According to Thomas Christensen—author of an upcoming book on the 17th-century beginnings of modern science—these simple, detailed sketches were seen as an affront to the Catholic Church.

It was a shock and an affront to suggest that God's heavenly objects were not perfect but pocked and roughened with craters and protuberances like some ordinary rock of the earthly realm. This would all come to a head when Galileo visited the pope in 1616 .

Thanks to cairosam for Submitterating!

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  1. I don’t honestly know why people are so worked up about the eclipse happening on the solstice. Sure a lunar eclipse is kind of fun, but the two happening at the same time is kind of like your car odometer rolling over to zero.

    1. You’re missing the point. It was as exciting as your car odometer rolling over to zero on the solstice…

    2. People tend to notice their odometer rolling over. It’s not a life-changing experience but they’re not going to intentionally ignore it just because they’re way too cool for odometers.

      Fun fact about the moon: Buzz Aldrin was one of the first people on the moon. Also, his mother’s maiden name was Moon.

      1. Do we have Buzz Aldrin’s full birth certificate? You know, just to prove that he’s not really a moon man?

  2. FWIW, I also live in the Twin Cities area (Roseville) and woke up briefly around 2:30 AM. I took a look outside. Still cloudy. We did not miss anything.

  3. Matthew – that is pretty neat. I once got to tour the rare book section of the Linda Hall Library in KC. I saw 1st ed of Darwins Origin of species and Copernicus’ book showing a heliocentric world. I saw the huge, big Audubon book that that I saw someone else is auctioning off for millions of dollars. The others escape me now – but it was an awesome visit.

    As I understand it, where Galileo got into hot water was not for his discoveries, as much as how he dictated how it affected scripture. Had he kept to this realm, and let the Church continue to be in charge of interpretation of scripture, he could have avoided the whole mess.

    Ironically, it is the Catholics now who have reconciled science with faith more than any other denomination. They have their own dept of Astronomy, and an academy of science with some of the top researchers as members who will advise the church on the details of an issue. The ‘big bang’ theory came from a Catholic priest/astronomer.

    Fun fact – Galileo is buried in Florence. I have seen it and it is pretty cool. I asked a lady who worked there a few questions:

    “That is Galileo’s tomb?”

    “Yes.”

    “But wasn’t he excommunicated until the 70s?”

    “Yes.”

    “So how was he buried in a church – especially this one?”

    “The Medici family paid for the burial and to put it in the church.”

    “Sooo – in a way – the Medici had more money than God?”

    “… yes.”

    1. That lady didn’t know her hitory. Galileo was never excommunicated. The worst punishment bestowed upon him was house arrest in a lovely villa.

      1. Correct. Galileo was never excommunicated. Also, the quote in the article reflects a worn-out, popular misconception concerning the relationship between Galileo’s work and the Catholic Church. At the time Galileo was working, the Heliocentric theory was nothing new in scientific circles. The vatican itself had a team of Jesuits who were also astronomers and the theory was accepted by the church. However Galileo could not demonstrate the expected parallax shift that even Aristotle had noted should follow from the Heliocentric theory (b/c the equipment to measure it didn’t exist yet). The church thus warned him not to claim heliocentrism as fact but rather theory. He ignored the warning, and probably would have still been left alone had he not gone even farther and started to claim that this “fact” then negated certain passages of scripture. It was only when he crossed over from science into theology that he got in trouble. Also, history has forgotten that part of Galileo’s theory held that the sun was not just the center of the solar system but the entire universe, so had the church jumped on the bandwagon it would have actually been endorsing an error.

      2. I stand corrected, though I was the one who said excommunicated. There was a language barrier with me knowing very little Italian and her English was so-so.

  4. Mister 44 the point was Galileo was NOT excommunicated. He was threatened with this but because he recanted he remained in the bosom of the church until his death, and there was no obstacle to his being buried in any church. The Pope was an astronomer himself, by the way, and not at all disposed to tolerate Galileo’s arrogant diatribes on subjects with which he was personally quite familiar.

  5. “It was a shock and an affront to suggest that God’s heavenly objects were not perfect…”

    Well… whenever I see Galileo mentioned I feel compelled to point out that the reaction of the Catholic Church to Galileo was not one of fundamentalists protecting scripture but rather scientist/philosophers, albeit in the employ of the Catholic Church, protecting philosophy/science.

    The system the church was protecting was the astronomy of Ptolemy, a Greek/Roman/Egyptian philosopher and not a Christian. It was Greek philosophy not jewish/christian scriptures which taught that matter was evil and that up above were the real perfect things.

    The really sad part is that, while the Greek philosophical influence over science was destroyed by the discoveries of Galileo, the theological influence of that philosophy continues to this day.

    1. “It was Greek philosophy not jewish/christian scriptures which taught that matter was evil and that up above were the real perfect things.”

      I believe that Ptolemy asserted that the moon and other celestial objects were of a different substance than the terrestrial world and this other substance possessed different properties. Some Jewish philosophers embraced this notion in particular Nachmanidies. His commentary on the Hebrew Bible has allusions to this in the account of creation. It shows that it was the lingua franca of the age.

      but the history of science shows that the science has been and often still is as anti-science as the Church. It boils down to matters of vested interests.

      It is something to consider when developing public policy on issues such as global warming and cap-and-trade. Sometimes I see evidence that factions in the scientific community are trying to stifle debate on the existence global warming and its causes.

      1. If science can be as anti-science as the Church can, can you provide an example of science putting someone under house arrest because they don’t like the person’s findings, or something similar?

        1. I can think of examples worse than house arrest. Read the The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn and you will see examples of thousands of people who were imprisoned because they dared to act upon their belief that The Soviet Union, a state founded firmly on the plinth of Marx’s and Engles’ scientific theories, had no moral standing.

          Here is a recent example from the New York Times of an evangelical Christian being denied employment in a scientific position possibly because of his faith:

          http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/us/19kentucky.html?scp=1&sq=christian%20denied%20job&st=cse

          The New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer was published December 18, 2010 with the Title “Astronomer Sues the University of Kentucky, Claiming Faith Cost him His Job.” This will be an interesting case to watch. I am curious to see what Dr. Gaskell’s evidence is but it does smell fishy to me.

          By the way I forgot to mention to my fellow mutants that I watched the lunar eclipse last night from my terrace in Brooklyn, NY under near perfect weather conditions and it was breathtaking! At totality the moon’s ruddy hue had the appearance of an alien world.

  6. I also just wanted to add that these are great sketches for the optics of the time. Patience, curiosity and a steady hand will apparently get you a long way.

  7. (I apologize if this is double posted as I first posted anonymously before logging in)….

    As others have noted, Galileo was never excommunicated. Also, the quote in the article reflects a worn-out, popular misconception concerning the relationship between Galileo’s work and the Catholic Church. At the time Galileo was working, the Heliocentric theory was nothing new in scientific circles. The vatican itself had a team of Jesuits who were also astronomers and the theory was accepted by the church. However Galileo could not demonstrate the expected parallax shift that even Aristotle had noted should follow from the Heliocentric theory (b/c the equipment to measure it didn’t exist yet). The church thus warned him not to claim heliocentrism as fact but rather theory. He ignored the warning, and probably would have still been left alone had he not gone even farther and started to claim that this “fact” then negated certain passages of scripture. It was only when he crossed over from science into theology that he got in trouble. Also, history has forgotten that part of Galileo’s theory held that the sun was not just the center of the solar system but the entire universe, so had the church jumped on the bandwagon it would have actually been endorsing an error.

  8. were the church higher-ups unable to use their eyes? No one looking at the moon could mistake it for a perfectly polished sphere.

    and what about the earth? where’s the polished perfection for our own planet? How come the moon gets this special treatment and not our own planet?

    Though it’s not comparable in result to the Crusades, witch-hunts, or suicide bombings, this “perfect moon” idea is perhaps the apex of religious stupidity, since any 5 year old would tell you it isn’t true.

  9. As a 21st century boy, I’m a bit mystified as to why anyone would think that the moon was perfect? I mean, just look at it. The maria are perfectly visible to the naked eye, and don’t look like anything regular or designed. If there were flocks of angels supposed to be maintaining the moon’s perfection, they were clearly slacking.

  10. Interesting. I worship Darwin, but I’ve never read OoS cover to cover. Has anyone, these days? Or did Darwin’s bulldog (T.H. Huxley) do his job too well? Heck, I even tried to read VotB, and fell asleep in Argentina.

    The disconnect between what a telescope shows and what a telescope means was huge. Without prior knowledge of craters on the Moon, the features of the Moon visible to the naked eye had no special meaning beyond mystery. And Mystery remains a theological virtue to this day.

    Nor is the cognitive dissonance unique to the 17th century. I once found myself in the awkward position of explaining to my boss why astronauts don’t “fly back” when they get out of their space capsules. Gravity-free orbits were not a concept that could enter a selfmade millionaire’s head. We compromised on *his* franchise, which was that there is no air in space to make a spacewalk hazardous.

    This was the first time I’d ever experienced more than strong opinions from an alleged modern. My boss, proud owner of a hamburger joint, had a genuine purblind pig ignorance not amenable to discourse or even persuasion — my first sense of danger coming from the noetic world. I was 17.

    That’s the uneasy world we live in today.

  11. Tom Christensen here. Thanks, cairosam, for the link to my blog and the mention of my forthcoming book.

    Regarding the roughness of the moon’s surface, there were a few explanations why it did not appear smooth. For one, maybe the earth’s atmosphere distorted its otherwise perfect image (along the same lines, some people said that the images viewed through telescopes were actually produced by the instruments themselves). Christopher Clavius, a Jesuit mathematician in Rome, suggested after seeing Galileo’s engravings that the moon must be encased within a perfect crystal that couldn’t be seen because it was transparent.

    Regarding effamy’s assertion that “the quote in the article” reflects a “worn-out, popular misconception concerning the relationship between Galileo’s work and the Catholic Church,” it is true that Galileo’s main antagonists were — at least initially — academic philosophers. Those philosophers, however, soon used their connections to get Galileo into trouble with the church. The reason I said that the issue came to a head in 1616 is because what happened there was the key point of contention during his 1633 trial.

    Effamy’s charmingly sanguine notion that the church was just groovy with heliocentrism (in which, by the way, Galileo was actually only tangentially interested) runs counter to fact. Church authorities charged with Galileo’s case officially ruled in February 1616 that heliocentrism “is foolish and absurd in Philosophy, and formally heretical inasmuch as it contradicts the express opinion of Holy Scriptures in many places.” Galileo was prohibited from publishing, and his works placed on the Index of forbidden books, where they would remain for a century. Catholic schools were prohibited from teaching that the earth orbits the sun until well into the eighteenth century.

  12. Not only was it cloudy, it was COLD in Minneapolis. I stayed inside, where it was warm, and comfortable.

  13. “This would all come to a head when Galileo visited the pope in 1616…”

    …after years of teasing the Vatican just to make a name for himself.

  14. was cloudy right before the lunar eclipe happened (modesto, ca), then the sky got so clear, and I got my binoculars and camera out, and had the clearest view of the whole experience-was pretty amazing!

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