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Four hundred years ago this week, 25 August 1609, Galileo Galilei demonstrated his ninepower telescope to the Senate in Venice in Venice. With his telescope he was subsequently going to change the way we see the universe and our place in it. And he was going to fatally undermine ideas that were taught as fact by the Catholic Church and all other Christian Churches of the time.
We are so used to the Galilean view by now - it is something that is taught so early and so uncontroversially in our schooling - that today it is difficult to imagine just how major a change he introduced.
When Galileo looked at the skies through his primitive telescope:
- he saw mountains casting shadows on the moon showing him that like the earth, the moon had complicated terrain;
- he saw the moons of Jupiter - objects that circled another heavenly body - contrary to the church's teaching;
- he saw the moonlike phases of Venus - indicating the plant circled the sun, not the Earth - again, contrary to the church's teaching;
- he saw sunspots - showing the sun was not a perfect orb - again contrary to the teaching of the church (which had adopted the idea from the Greeks);
- he saw that the Milky Way, a cloudy streak to the naked eye, was made up of stars, giving rise to the concept that the universe is hugely greater with vastly more stars than could be seen with the eye alone.
Galileo did more than establish that the Earth goes round the sun rather than vice versa. He also established that science trumps religious doctrine. And for that we all owe him thanks.
- Those who read The Economist will realize that much of the above is based on an article in a recent issue: As important as Darwin: In praise of astronomy, the most revolutionary of sciences, The Economist, August 15, 2009 p 12