Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why does Galileo smile in spite of the telescope fiasco?

Last month I got an opportunity to watch Bertolt Brecht’s play “The life of Galileo” at Ranga Shankara, Bangalore. The play was directed by Prakash Belawadi. In one of the scenes, the curator (Director as we would call him today) of the University of Padua storms into Galileo’s house. It is night and Galileo and his friend Sagredo are watching the sky through a telescope. The curator is upset because Galileo had falsely claimed authorship of the invention of telescope and got his salary raised by 500 scudi. Now, the curator has discovered that telescopes made in Holland are available on any street corner of Italy for a few scudi. Galileo is not upset with this news at all. In fact, he seemed happy to hear it and smiles. Why did Galileo smile in spite of the fiasco?

Did Galileo really lie? Yes. He falsely claims that the telescope is the fruit of his seventeen years of research. He had heard about the basic idea of telescope invented in Holland. He improves upon it and claims authorship. After the curator leaves Galileo explains to Sagredo, “Virginia (his daughter) will soon need a dowry. She is not intelligent. And then, I like to buy books. And I like to eat decently. It’s when I am eating that I get most inspiration.” Galileo wanted to savour a good life and he chose to capitalize on the telescope idea. Did Galileo smile because he could fool the authorities and get his salary hiked? Nope. Then what was it?

By 1610 (this Galileo incident), Copernicus’ mathematical model of heliocentric system (Sun at the centre) was 60 years old. However, it had not gained support from Astronomers because it clashed with the Church view that the Earth is at the centre of the universe and there was no evidence to support it. In 1600 (10 years earlier), Giordano Bruno, another Italian astronomer was burned to death by the civil authorities because he had supported Copernican view. Opposing Church was a game with high stakes.

With the help of telescope, Galileo had been able to observe the sky in more detail. For example, he studied four smaller planets near Jupiter one of which vanished after a few days. That concluded that the planet was revolving around Jupiter and not around the Earth. There was no scaffolding that was holding the universe up as the Church claimed. What was even more significant was that with telescopes being sold at street corners in Italy, anybody could verify what Galileo was observing. In Galileo’s words in the play, “The temptation offered by such a proof is too great. Most succumb to it, and in the long run-all”.

In other words, telescope had taken the experimentation capacity of average people to a completely new height. Unlike Bruno, Galileo can make claims which anyone can observe and check it for himself. This idea perhaps tickled Galileo and he smiled.

You can also watch this scene in the 1975 movie “Galileo”. It begins with the song:

No one’s virtue is complete:

Great Galileo likes to eat.

You will not resent, we hope,

The truth about this telescope.

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