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New eyes and new ideas

POSTED October 17, 2009 1:43 a.m.
This year is the 400th birthday of science and engineering. It’s an occasion worth noting and giving thanks for because each day those twin disciplines improve the lives of billions of people around the world. (Beyond that, science and engineering are awfully fun, so their total effect is sort of like combining doing good all around the planet with the pure joys of playing chess.)  
The game all got started in 1609 when a number of people in different parts of Europe started to put two glass lenses together in a new way. One lens was concave (depression going into the lens), one convex (domed outward from the lens). If you join the two by a leather tube, you have a simple telescope — a device made by at least 1609 in the Netherlands and likely in several other countries around the same time.  
Galileo Galilei jumped into the telescope game with both feet as soon as the new device turned up — which doubtless contributes to the false notion that he invented the device entirely on his own. He didn’t invent the telescope, but he did most certainly see the important applications to which the “best” telescope of the day could be turned — a device about as powerful as a cheap telescope I’d give a grade-schooler for Christmas today. With that as a starting place, Galileo went to work making night observations of the moon, the stars, and the planets. His progress was rapid, and the implications of his findings launched the scientific revolution and the modern era — the centuries that are marked by us ‘geeks’ shaping so much of the way humans live.
The key to the whole transformation we’re celebrating on this 400 anniversary was to look outward at physical evidence to answer a question, rather than looking back at tradition or looking inward to revelation to settle disputes.   
With his telescope, Galileo quickly demonstrated that the moon was not a perfect, spherical body as the ancients had thought, a nicely smooth bowling-ball left over from the first moments of creation. It was a complex planetoid, with highlands, dark lowlands and major craters crisscrossed by little craters — everything that made it “imperfect” to people of 1609, just like the Earth itself.  
It was as if perfection itself has fallen to the ground, and old traditions died with the crash.  
More remarkably still, even the Sun was found to be imperfect. The brightest, seemingly most pure body in the sky was round enough, but it had moving blemishes, spots right on its face!  
The foundations of the ancient way of looking at the universe crumbled, never to be revived again.  
Galileo also soon made observations of Venus, the planet so bright it’s easy to pick out in the sky before the Sun has even fully set some evenings. He showed that Venus waxes and wanes a bit like the moon as seen from the Earth. That was a crucial observation about the solar system, because tradition and the Church taught that all bodies in the sky revolve around Earth. Galileo’s diagrams of how Venus waxed and waned like the moon made it clear that Venus was not revolving around Earth, but was, indeed, revolving around the Sun. (A nice diagram of the waxing and waning of Venus that Galileo saw is available along the right-hand margin of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei. You can see it all in the sky, too, if you’d care to verify the evidence in the modern scientific spirit.)  
Galileo also looked at Jupiter in the night sky — which his telescope revealed had bodies orbiting around it. Again, the visual evidence made it clear that the Earth was not the center of the solar system.
Galileo, to be sure, stood on the shoulders of others. Copernicus was one obvious giant who had come before him. Good work always depends on a network of earlier efforts. But it’s also true a crucial corner was turned in 1609, and nothing has been the same afterward.  
Let’s make a heck of a big birthday cake — with 400 miniature telescopes on top of it.
— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. A library of past Rock Doc columns is available at <www.rockdoc.wsu.edu>. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

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