Sunday, 18 January 2009

International Year of Astronomy

2009 is the International - or should that be Intergalactic? - Year of Astronomy.

I admit it's more by chance than study that I'm writing Moonwalking in a year that just happens to be 40 years after humans (I'm not going to do an Armstrongism here) first stepped on the lunar surface. And 400 years after Galileo first took a peep through his telescope up to the moon and moved the very foundations of science and the universe.

Before Galileo, the science of space worked on the Aristotle theory (as did most things - including the painfully prescriptive Aristotelian story structure still taught by men called Derrek; a lovely man I must add). Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said Earth was the centre of the universe. When Aristotle said something, people believed him. Until somebody came along and said something more complicated and backed it up with science, that is. But even then, our Greek friend's followers took a lot of convincing.

Galileo was the man to challenge the great philosopher when the subject was the moon and space.

Galileo Galilei - 'Father of Modern Astronomy'

Between November and December 1609, Pisa-born Galileo Galilei (b. 1564), son of a musician, used his newly-engineered telescope (he heard the Dutch were using such a device for seeing distant things and borrowed the idea) to study the moon. Decades earlier, Polish scientist (and all-rounder) Nicolaus Copernicus put forward the Earth-shattering theory that the sun – not the Earth, as Aristotle had so confidently stated over 1500 years previous – was the centre of the universe. Galileo, to the condemnation of the Inquisition, concurred. Rather than all celestial bodies orbiting God’s own planet, we, with our moon and all other nearby planets, circled the solar-powering sphere all those millions of miles away. This was the Solar System.


Galileo and the moon

Galileo noticed many things about the moon that contradicted Aristotle's philosophy and the theology of the 17th century, that God knew what he was doing by placing Earth at the heart of existence:
  • The moon’s surface contained mountains and valleys
  • It was not perfectly spherical
  • It was not perfect
Early moon sketches from Sidereus Nuncius (Galileo Galilei, 1610)

Today these observations seem pretty obvious. But that’s only because we’ve been taught to know this. Put yourself into medieval Europe (make sure you’re wealthy or you’ll probably die of dysentery before the end of this blog). You know little of your planet, let alone your universe. You’ve been told for hundreds of years your planet is pretty damned special, placed by God into a well-designed universe. Everything orbits you. Like rubber-neckers, neighbouring planets, comets and asteroids want to see what this place called Earth is like.

Then some Italian bloke with two very similar-sounding names and therefore lazy parents (like poor Neville Neville) comes along and tells everyone that the Poles have done it again; not only could they probably undercut Sir Christopher Wren when it comes to putting in a new observatory, but one of them has formulated a theory for the transit of Earth around the sun.


400 years ago this was big news. Big, controversial, existence-changing news. Imagine that Barack Obama is a white man wearing make-up. That would be big. This was BIG with big letters.

Galileo progressed science immeasurably and set foundations for millennia of space study. And especially moon study. He, and other 17th century geniuses (who I’ll tackle in more depth in the book), brought the Western world closer to the Enlightened years that the Humanist 16th century so needed.

Thank God for scientists.


patroclus said...

Ooh, it's all about the Enlightenment this week. Here is some more 17th-century moongazing for you.

rob-sp said...

Ah yes, Mr Harriot. It's funny how this has been splashed over the news when the exhibition of his work isn't until July in Chichester. When I spoke to her, the lady at the records office wasn't looking forward to the thousands of callers she's preparing to disappoint.

Silly BBC.