Arts & Culture

Why Galileo Is So Important Today

ItalianConsulateBostonDr. Carlo Cipollone, the Educational Director of the Italian Consulate, presented the following article, Galileo’s Educational Legacy, at a recent symposium at Harvard University. The event was in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope. Many thanks to the author for his permission to republish it and North End resident, Nancy Caruso, for the submission.

In occasion of the Week of Celebration of the Italian Language in the World, the Consulate General of Italy in Boston in collaboration with Harvard University and the Italian Space Agency present a symposium.
Galileo’s Telescope and the Beginning of the Scientific Revolution and Space Exploration

GalileoGalileiGalileo’s Educational Legacy
by Dr. Carlo Cipollone
Educational Director of the Italian Consulate

As an educator, I can confirm that Galileo continues to generate great curiosity today, even among the youngest members of our society. A few days ago I received an email from a nine year-old student. With her mother’s help, young Ashley asked to address some simple questions to scientists and experts on Galileo. She also requested to meet with me for a chat about this icon of scientific discovery. While reviewing Ashley’s questions I realized that children, in their ingenuity, manage to raise complex topics and queries – challenging most adults to give a suitable answer.

The question that struck me the most was probably the most difficult to answer: “Why is Galileo so important today”?

I hope that I can give an answer to Ashley’s question. I will aim to give the best response I can, trying to offer a perspective based on the man behind the telescope, the man who influenced countless disciplines.

Galileo’s ideas not only sparked a scientific revolution, they initiated a large-scale revolution in human thinking. He changed the way we see the world and more importantly, how we perceive ourselves within it.

Everything began four hundred years ago…

The writings from the period indicate that many had been convinced that there was nothing left to discover in the world. However in the 16th century many scientists and philosophers began to review the concept of geocentrism and highlight its inconsistencies with their observations. But it was Copernicus who expanded this into the theory of heliocentrism.

In this context, in July 1609, Galileo Galilei became aware of a Dutch telescope. He was convinced that the invention would be very useful to search the celestial bodies of outer space. He succeeded in procuring the instrument, but immediately realized that it was little more than a toy, and so he decided to construct one of his own that would better suit his purposes.

On November 1609, Galileo pointed his telescope towards the sky. For the first time he observed lunar craters, the stars of the Milky Way, and in 1610, he observed the first four satellites of Jupiter. He called them “Medicea Sidera,” in honor of the Medici family and in order to earn their gratitude and obtain influential protection for his upcoming presentation of these discoveries before the scientific community.

Yet long before using the telescope, Galileo had already begun looking at the world “from a different perspective.” In 1606, he had written to the great scientist Johannes Kepler (his correspondent) saying that he “had been a Copernicanist for many years.” This means that his astronomical activities began in adolescence. Though his father wanted him to become a doctor, Galileo (thankfully and fortunately for us) clandestinely studied mathematics.

Galileo thought of the cosmos as an “immense concept full of philosophy, astronomy, and geometry.” He was convinced that the direct observation of the sky would supply the answers for the questions that crowded his mind. He wrote that, “Thought is the most pleasing ability granted to human kind.”

Many artists were inspired by this revolution in science and applied Galileo’s observations to their work, perhaps most evident in the paintings by Ludovico Cigoli. One of Galileo’s most difficult tasks was recreating what he observed through the telescope; he didn’t have, after all, the advantage of an iPhone or a camera, digital or otherwise, For that reason he asked for help from his friend Cigoli. The two met in Florence, where they, along with Giovanni de’Medici, were given lessons in perspective by mathematician Ostilio Ricci. Galileo relied on Cigoli to draw realistic depictions of what he saw.

Even in the 1599 Cigoli’s “Adoration of the Shepards” the moon can be seen a more realistic object in the noticeable presence of the darker circle of clouds. Between 1610 and 1612, Cigoli, corresponding with Galileo and experimenting with perspective projections on curved surfaces, created the Immacolata, a superb fresco in the cupola of the Pauline Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Here, the one central element is the Virgin Mary, who stands upon a crescent moon clearly pitted and scarred just as Galileo had seen it. Cigoli’s moon, floating in a chapel in anti-Copernican Rome clearly depicts parts of the moon’s actual geography. Unlike the abstract representations that had dominated art before Galileo’s discoveries, in Cigoli’s painting the moon is a concrete image, not a symbolic idea.

Many others artists were directly influenced by Galileo, like Andrea Pozzo, whose fresco at Saint Ignazio di Loyola church in Rome, gives the illusion of a false dome. Only standing below the center of the ceiling, on top of a marble disc, can a perfect dome be depicted. As one moves to other parts of the room their perspective begins to change creating a distorted view. Galileo’s discoveries also had a notable impact in the field of philosophy. For example: Francis Bacon realized both the importance of Galileo’s discoveries themselves and the importance of the way in which Galileo presented them. He said: “There are men who are praised because they meticulously lend reason to their discoveries and then go on to navigate celestial spaces in small boats. This is Galileo.”

Bacon therefore equates Galileo’s exploration via telescope with that of famous travelers of the Earth’s seas, such as Christopher Columbus. The struggle to maintain a relationship with the Church while still developing his scientific ideas:
In 1610, Galileo published the results of these astronomical observations in the “Sidereus Nuncius,” a booklet marking a development in the history of astronomy and science. The idea that the Earth was immobile and at the center of the universe, as well as the belief that the sky was unchanging, were refuted once Galileo’s observations were published. The loss of a privileged position of the Earth in the universe twisted the idea sustained by the Church that the cosmos was created in deference to Man.

Galileo’s studies therefore produced devastating consequences on a philosophical and religious level; nothing could ever be the same as before. He certainly was aware that the Copernican cosmology was not in accordance with the Church and the Holy Scriptures, which attested to the geocentric conception of the Universe.

In April of 1611 Galileo, then a renowned professor and under the protection of Cosimo II de’ Medici, was received in Rome. Paradoxically, the Jesuit scientists of the Roman College praised Galileo for his discoveries, and the prince Federico Cesi named him Academic of Lincei. It seemed as if his new ideas had triumphed.

Nevertheless, those opposed to Galileo’s theories continued to act on behalf of the Inquisition. Motivated by certain members of the Church who understood the risk of Galileo’s theories, the Dominicans Tommaso Caccini and Nicolo Lorini attacked the scientist. Their principal fear was that his theories would inspire humanity to think freely.

Their argument proved convincing. In 1616 Galileo was admonished by the Sacred Inquisition. The Church described his ideas as “false and contrary to scripture” and warned Galileo to revoke his theories. But Galileo persisted. In 1634, he once again defended the heliocentric theory in what would become his most famous work, “il Dialogo sopra i due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo” (“Dialogue Concerning “the Two Chief World Systems”). He chose to write using urlgar Latin-a precursor to modern Italian, a language accessible to University professors, researchers and students alike-and in the form of a dialogue because he wanted to give voice to the advocates of both geocentrism and heliocentrism, thus presenting a logical argumentation for his science. As a result, and despite the warm friendship and mutual respect that Galileo enjoyed with Pope Urban VIII, the Vatican deemed him a heretic; Galileo was sentenced to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

In addition to his innovative theories and ground breaking points of view, Galileo humbly bowed to human realism and reached a compromise between religion and science.

During the long and hard trial, after having exhausted every argument with the judges of the Sacred Inquisition, Galileo arrived at a final decision. If his theory had been confirmed, he would have been condemned to the stake (as had been the fate of Giordano Bruno a few years before.) He therefore applied the principle of a “double truth,” publicly disowning his convictions, while remaining privately and intimately convinced of the truth in his theories.

Galileo’s declaration had a grave effect on Italian and European science. For example, the philosopher Descartes, after hearing Galileo’s recantation, swore he would bum all of Galileo’s published papers.

The truth of Galileo’s convictions, however, found written in his ow.n hand, in a book he had retained during his house arrest. In the margins of this work, one reads: “Science produces innovations, but the innovations are powerful and can ruin the republic; therefore those who have the power, and are extremely ignorant of every science, are the ones that appoint judges and subdue intellectuals.”

Galileo knew that his contemporaries were not ready to accept such a radical claim as heliocentrism. He confirmed, “We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.” His adoption of a “double truth” sought to avoid internal conflict and to allow time for the Church and society to discover on their own the truth within his scientific reasoning.

Over time, the value of Galileo’s theories has been recognized as irrefutable among many groups who had originally been critical of his studies. In 1835, almost 200 years after its original publication, the “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” was removed from the Vatican’s list of banned books. After another 150 years, the Church surrendered its rejection of Galileo’s views of the solar system and deemed them correct.

Nevertheless, the valuable studies resulting from Galileo’s thoughts are above all the basis of modern science today. Suffice it to say these studies may be called the “free research” of everything that followed.

And the effects are countless. He examined nature to find answers to phenomena via experimentations; only then would he give scientific value to these answers by means of a mathematical model. As the first modern physicist, Galileo has offered important contributions to the study of Dynamics. In the “Dialogues” one can find clear expressions of the concepts of the “infinite” and of “infinitism.” These concepts were to become the basis of differential calculus, which did not exist during that century. The studies of astronomy and science have both advanced since Galileo’s time, but his idea that we are not at the center of the universe remains itself central.

Today we can see the influences of Galileo’s avant-garde thought process and notice the path that they have paved for current innovative thinkers and scientists alike. Many examples of Galileo’s legacy still live on. Some of which directly affect the way we observe space and we will be able to discover gradually thanks to the strength of the Hubble and Herschel telescopes, which observe the infinity of the universe. Another pertinent example is the “Galileo” system, a global satellite system of civil navigation developed in Europe as an alternative to GPS, thanks to the Telespazio Space Center of Fucino, Abruzzo.

Another project that carries his name today is the Galileo Program, whose objective is to develop scientific exchanges and technologies of excellence among the research laboratories of Italy and France. Through this program, many hope to increase environmental protection, the improvement of the quality of life, protection of cultural heritage, the development of innovative technologies, etc.

In conclusion, Galileo surely was a man “before his time.” He said, “Facts, which at first seem improbable will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty.” His discoveries teach us that anything is possible, and that the possibilities are as infinite as outer space, but also as infinite as what is hidden within each of us. And that is the answer to Ashley’s question.” Why Galileo is so important today?

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