October 8, 2009
At the opening of the new public observatory at the National Air and Space Museum last week, the 17th century astronomer, Galileo, made a surprise appearance. Carrying his telescope, he emerged from the throngs of press and museum staffers shouting “Scusi, scusi.” Galileo then leapt up onto the small stage next to NASM curator David DeVorkin. The two talked back and forth about Galileo’s contributions and DeVorkin updated the astronomer on what has happened since 1609, when Galileo first “turned his telescope to the heavens.”
Although the Galileo impersonator Mike Francis has since gone back to Massachusetts, visitors to the museum can still experience Galileo’s genius in an authentic way. A first edition of Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius” will be on display in the museum’s “Explore the Universe” exhibit for three months. The Dibner Library, which houses the Smithsonian’s collection of rare books and manuscripts relating to the history of science and technology, has loaned the book to the museum. The title translates to “Starry Messenger,” and Galileo joked at the event that his competitors used to wrongly refer to him as the Starry Messenger.
The book, which is considered the first scientific treatise based on observations made through a telescope, was published in March 1610. In it, Galileo revealed the results of his observations of the moon, the stars and Jupiter’s moons. By observing the way light behaved on the moon’s surface, Galileo theorized correctly that the moon’s surface had craters and mountains. This contradicted the prevailing theory of the day. Aristotelean cosmology said that the heavens were more perfect than the earth, so the heavenly bodies must be perfectly smooth spheres.
The Galileo at the press event was smugly satisfied to hear how well his theories had stood up through time.
The book is on display next to a Galileo telescope.
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