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E pur si muove: Themanwhosawthroughthedarkness

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

December 9, 2005

Galileos head was on the block
The crime was looking up the truth
And as the bombshells of my daily fears explode
I try to trace them to my youth…

-Indigo Girls

I. First Light

It is the moment when a new telescopes lens is first exposed to the light of the heavens. Light, made of photons, particles that have no size, travels through space fast enough to travel in a second seven times around the world. It could reach the moon in under two seconds. The time it would take to reach us from Jupiter: Forty-five minutes. Thus, long ago, did photons travel from there to the eyes of a man in Italy, through a small tube he had fashioned, and now held in his hands, gazing at the sky…

II. Sidera Medicea

In 1610, having made enough improvements to a spyglass invented by a Dutch spectacle-maker, the mathematics professor Galileo Galilei found that he could see Jupiter in unprecedented detail. Most remarkably, the planet, twelve times as wide as the earth, had four companions. Night after night, his observations revealed them shifting seemingly back and forth, to the right and left of Jupiter.

At some wonderful moment, there must have come to him an idea: Although it had been six decades since fellow astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus had published his heliocentric theory, it was still widely believed that the earth, not the sun, lay at the center of the universe. Now, through this simple tube with a lens at each end, Galileo saw proof that the Copernican model was right. The points of light were satellites orbiting Jupiter. Indeed, then, the earth could likewise orbit the sun

He named the moons sidera medicea, now known simply as the Galilean satellites: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Other things too would one day be named in his honor

III. On The Night Side

In dark times, even seeing is not believing for those who do not want to. We all know stories like this, so Ill settle for just saying that Galileo was soon in trouble with the Holy Inquisition for suggesting that the earth might orbit the sun. Reconciling two points of view that were at odds was no problem back then;

the accusers simply gave the accused a tour of their state-of-the-art torture-chamber. It must have been impressive, for the proceedings soon found our poor hero on his knees as requested, recanting his published work and all belief in Copernican heliocentricity. Although its a myth, I like to believe that, as he finished professing that an immobile earth lay at the center of the universe, Galileo is reported to have muttered quietly, and yet, it moves.

Despite the retraction, Galileo received life imprisonment. The sentence was magnanimously reduced to a lifetime of house arrest, due to ill health, at his home in Arcetri, Italy. There he spent his remaining years publishing and making new telescopic discoveries.

IV. Sogno

One night, with eyes that were becoming blind, and now strained from hours of writing, Galileo gazed at the modest telescope that had revealed so much insight. Nearly dozing off, he was startled by a knock, and jumped up to answer the door. Terrified that it might be an agent of the Inquisition, he was relieved to see a man in a long, white coat. The unfamiliar word NASA on the front puzzled Galileo, but he motioned the stranger into his study. Instead, the man led him out the door

Galileo was no longer at his home, but in a different world: A domed building;

at its center, some enormous, indescribable apparatus. Galileo was led to the awesome machinery and shown a tiny lens. He knew

What must this man of night-vision have wondered, gazing through the eyepiece at a view of Jupiter such as none his own telescope could ever have revealed? He stared until his failing eyes were inundated with tears of weariness and joy. But all was not done: The man bore a small gift, a bizarre-looking structure on a wooden base. An inscribed plaque explained, insofar as it was even possible to describe it to a Seventeenth-Century man, that it was a model of the robotic space-probe that humankind, in a more-enlightened age, sent to Jupiter in the year 1989. The marvelous craft had a name inscribed on the side: The name of the very man whose trembling hands held the model as he wept.

V. Prima Luce

It is the moment when the lens of a curious mind is first exposed to the light of reason. Thus it was that, in the year 1642, when the end finally came to the life of the man who had seen through dogmas darkness, there flickered into being a new life. This infant souls name was Isaac Newton, whose laws of gravitation and motion would one day revolutionize our universe once more.

Somewhere on a tiny planet, a little pair of eyes opened to the world. A young mind saw first light.

How long til my soul gets it right
Can any human being ever reach the highest light
Except for Galileo;

God rest his soul —
King of night vision,
King of insight.

Indigo Girls

In Memory of Carl Sagan, Astronomer (1934-1996).


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