Telescope was vital to propel science

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The telescope was invented in Holland in 1608.

By John Bartlit

2009 has been named the International Year of Astronomy to celebrate 400 years of the telescope.

The telescope was invented in Holland in 1608. On July 26, 1609, the Englishman Thomas Harriot looked at the moon through a 6-power telescope and drew what he saw. It was the first map from a telescopic image.

Just a month later, Galileo presented a homemade 8-power telescope to the Venetian Senate. That fall he turned a 20-power telescope to the heavens.

The evening of Jan. 7, 1610, Galileo noticed three “stars” strung in a line through the planet Jupiter, but three days later one “star” had disappeared, as if it went behind Jupiter.

After a week of watching, a fourth “star” appeared. The stars stayed near Jupiter and changed their positions with respect to each other and to Jupiter.

The sightings made sense if the stars — which were actually moons — were revolving around Jupiter.

The idea had one problem. In 1610, the prevailing story said the things in the heavens revolve around our planet Earth, not weird spheres like Jupiter.

Trouble loomed. We know about its eventual twist-up with spiritual concerns.

Galileo did not invent the telescope. But his homemade instrument was good enough to see Jupiter’s moons when no others could. His first findings in the sky were the products of his skilled workmanship and careful, inquiring mind.

About six months passed before others also had telescopes capable of seeing Jupiter’s moons. As the craft spread, Galileo’s published reports were tested and verified. Science moved forward as it does today.

Galileo watched carefully how objects move in the sky or on earth. He wondered if their movements might make sense mathematically.

Sure enough, he found the relative motion of objects could be quantified. The idea of measuring and making fine distinctions sparked more ideas.

The story is the telescope, but the end product is science. Albert Einstein famously called Galileo the father of modern science.

In due course, people turned other instruments and inquiring minds to mapping how elements behave, then the atom.

Still later, new instruments and inquiring minds turned to looking at ecosystems.

More recently, new instruments and inquiring minds have turned to probing the strangest frontier of all — the human mind. What can be physically measured inside a mind, looking from outside it?

I refer to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This instrument can see and measure the blood flow in different parts of a brain in all its moods and modes. These vary among such conditions as sleeping, laughing, crying, raging, twitching or reasoning. For each, blood flows differ in amount in different sites in the brain.

This sphere of science is a long way from Galileo’s turning his telescope to the heavens.

Yet the learning is an unbroken chain from that evening long ago when he noted three stars strung in a line through the planet Jupiter. And he watched their motion. And thought about the meanings. Until his calculations extended understanding.

Events of popular interest are planned at science museums. Check the Bradbury Science Museum and Albuquerque’s Explora! museum. Albuquerque’s atomic museum will hold events as well.

Rumor has it that Galileo himself will make appearances at some events. His purpose is to tell current generations more about his ideas and life experiences. Similar happenings are planned around the world. Visit www.astronomy2009.org.

Star-watching parties for everyone are held in many New Mexico parks, where the night sky is clearer, darker, and wider than is seen near most people’s homes.

There is much to see, and much yet to find. Through the ages tools for probing more deeply have yielded information, insights and more questions. The greatest result is the powerful method we call science.