4 Dec 2010

Some Looked & Couldn’t See: Galileo, Seeing and the Quest for Truth

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Exegesis, Galileo, Hermeneutics

A Momentous Fall Evening

Four Hundred and One years ago, on November 30, 1609, Galileo Galilei took his “spyglass” and some drawing equipment into the garden of his apartment in Padua. On this night Galileo did something no one had done before … he pointed his spyglass at the Moon. Galileo’s evening in the garden set off a series of events that would rock the world. When the dust settled it became clear that Galileo did not just usher in a few new facts about the universe rather what he had done was bring about a new way of “seeing” the cosmos itself.

The world Galileo lived in had undergone serious change in little over a century. Christopher Columbus had “discovered” a “new world” completely unknown to the ancients. Martin Luther had innocently brought a revolt against the Roman See. But these events had all occurred in the imperfect, unclean, lower realms of creation. The heavens were a different story. For two millennia classical Aristotelian cosmology was embraced as not only pure common sense but was married to Scripture by the medieval church and became theological dogma. The heavens, unlike the earthly realm, were perfect and unchanging. The celestial bodies were perfectly smooth crystalline spheres according to this doctrine. The large visible spots on the Moon were explained as parts of the sphere that absorbed and then emitted light differently from other parts.

How does one see, interpret, and understand phenomena? How does one explain what has never been seen by a human before? When Galileo first began to observe the Moon and then Jupiter at the end of 1609 and the beginning of 1610 he wasn’t sure how to interpret the data …

Just WHAT was he seeing?

A perfectly smooth, crystalline sphere should be well … it should be smooth! But on November 30th, when Galileo trained his crude spyglass (the word telescope was not invented yet telescopio was coined by John Demisiani, a Greek theologian residing in Rome on April 14, 1611, at a dinner held in Galileo’s honor) on the Moon it appeared … splotchy!

The terminator was not smooth but appeared to be “jagged.” There were lighted areas within the darker areas. What did this phenomena mean? Perhaps something is wrong with the instrument. Or perhaps something wrong with Galileo’s eyes. Perhaps it was caused by Galileo’s attempts to hold the spyglass steady. He did write that it was difficult to “escape the shaking of the hand that arises from the motion of the arteries and from respiration itself” [1]. But Galileo soon solved that issue … so what was he seeing? The implications of his interpretation had cosmological significance! Galileo provides a summary of his conclusion …

By oft-repeated observations of them we have been led to the conclusion that we certainly see the surface of the Moon to be not smooth, even, and perfectly spherical, as the great crowd of philosophers have believed about this and other heavenly bodies, but, on the contrary, to be uneven, rough, and crowded with depressions and bulges. And it is like the face of the Earth itself, which is marked here and there with chains of mountains and the depths of valleys.” [2].

Galileo then describes his observations in detail and gave the world its first ever published drawing of the moon as seen through his spyglass. The celestial spheres were not perfect! In fact they were just like the Earth. Or was it that the Earth was just like the celestial bodies … the Earth became a planet.

Galileo was not finished with his shock and awe on how we see the world. He had taken his spyglass and looked at the Milky Way, the Pleiades’s, and Orion the Hunter all suffered a similar fate. Suddenly before his eyes the Milky Way was seen to be nothing but “congeries of innumerable stars distributed in clusters!“[3] The Pleiades’s were anything but Seven Sisters. And Orion was more stars.

Galileo’s thermonuclear bomb however was saved till last: his observations of Jupiter the King. Since the dawn of time itself there had always been Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and also the Sun and Moon … all of which revolved around the Earth. On January 7, 1610 “Jupiter presented himself” [4].

As crude as his spyglass was Jupiter was still resolved into a disk, whereas the “fixed stars” did not. The keen sighted observer noticed “that three little stars were positioned near him.” But Galileo, understandably, interpreted these as among the “fixed stars.” Yet his curiosity was piqued because “they appeared to be arranged exactly along a straight line and parallel to the ecliptic and brighter of that others [i.e. stars] of equal size.” On successive nights Galileo returned to Jupiter and found that the King was “dancing with the stars” (my phrase … couldn’t resist).

The “stars” had shifted in respect to Jupiter. What was really being seen? And what, more importantly, did it MEAN? Was the movement that of Jupiter’s? was it the “stars?” Was it a hallucination? Galileo decided “henceforth they should be observed more accurately and diligently“[5]. He declares that he had moved from “doubt to astonishment.” On January 13, Galileo returned to Jupiter and spied four stars in respect to Jupiter. As the nights progressed the stars changed formation … some on the East and others on the West, then all on either side or one on the West and three on the East. Galileo “arrived at the conclusion” that these stars wandered “around Jupiter like Venus and Mercury around the Sun” [Galileo betrays his orientation to the Copernican system]. This was indeed astonishing!! It was cataclysmic!

Failure to See

Galileo announced his discoveries Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610. It was a sensation. The world was both in awe and disbelief. Some “believed” and saw and others did not “see” and did “not believe.” One, Martin Horky, published a short tract accusing Galileo of fraud. Galileo could not show the “planets” around Jupiter to the University of Bologna (in April 1610) faculty because they simply did not exist. Either the spyglass was bewitched or Galileo was a liar!

To demonstrate that his instrument worked Galileo performed daytime tests with observers. It worked in the daytime … so why not at night was Galileo’s point. However the encounter with Horky and the Bologna faculty highlights three responses by people to new worlds (in all arena’s of life).

1) Some refused to look through the telescope. The “planets” wouldn’t be there because they had decided a priori they couldn’t be there. One Florentine astronomer claimed that “these satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore exercise no influence on the earth, and therefore would be useless and therefore do not exist.” Since special equipment that brings things to the senses, that is even contrary to common sense, is dangerous, useless and misleading.

2) Some looked through Galileo’s spyglass and refused to see. These critics accused Galileo of stacking the data so to speak. Though unable to explain just how he did it Galileo’s instrument was the problem. So one claimed that though the Moon’s surface appeared to be mountainous, in reality a transparent crystalline surface as high as the highest peaks covered Luna’s surface thus preserving its spherical perfection.

3) Some looked and couldn’t see.

So What!

Thus the simple act of looking, seeing, and understanding was no longer as simple as it appeared to be. “Seeing” is not so simple after all! All the filters that had been in place for generations inhibited the ability to see, interpret … and understand the Truth. The flatness of the Earth (though the ancients did not believe this), the immobility of the Earth, the perfectly circular orbits of the planets, the Earth’s position at the center of the cosmos … all that we could ever hope to see … all the assumptions based on generations of observations were gone. Without prior experience, observers had no way of knowing for sure what they were seeing.

There are many important lessons to be drawn from the experience of Galileo and those around him. I want to briefly state a few with hopes that my readers will ponder them further.

1) No matter what the subject matter be it Scripture or science we must take the time of learning the actual data. Sometimes the “common sense” explanation is absolutely not the correct answer.

2) Galileo, like an interpreter of Scripture, had to learn to let the phenomena actually “exist.” It is rather easy to decide material does not exist or is of no importance at all when we discover “stars” where there should be no stars.

3) Galileo, like an interpreter of Scripture, not only had to let the phenomena exist but he had to learn to “see” it. By seeing I mean he had to study it long enough to distinguish those stars that weren’t supposed to exist and how they might relate to Jupiter in which he was told it was a scientific impossibility for an object to revolve … much less four. Galileo’s learning curve here came from patiently listening to the evidence on its own terms.

4) Galileo had to have the courage to stand up against millennia of scholars and even the everyday experience of practically the entire human race. The German astronomer Kepler wrote in defense of Galileo over the charge of being arrogant enough to think he was more gifted with insight than all the ancient worthies. It was “[b]ecause he loves the truth, he does not hesitate to oppose the most familiar opinions, and to bear the jeers of the crowd with equanimity.”

5) Like Galileo we need, as Christians and interpreters of the Word, to be willing to go out in the Garden once again. We must be willing to study afresh. We need to learn to “see” and make the quest for truth the only criteria … not all the things “surely believed” but never actually examined.

In Bible study we have some who react just as did Galileo’s contemporaries. Some refuse to look. They already know all truth and there is not the slightest chance they could be wrong. To even admit such a possibility is tantamount to committing a sin. Some look and refuse to see they have as amazing, and ingenious, ways to explain away the evidence as Florentine astronomers did the mountains on the Moon. Some look and cannot see.

But on that November night Galileo did in fact usher in more than a Moon with mountains. He brought in a new way of seeing and understanding the world itself. We are still reeling from the events of that night. My prayer is that our encounter with the Word will be equally revolutionary. We are committed to seeking the truth … we do not let what we have been taught or what we have always believeb determine what can and cannot be the truth.

He who has an ear let him hear … he who has eyes let him see … some Look and See …

Yield, Vespucci, and let Columbus yield. Each of them
Holds his way through the unknown sea, it is true.
But you, Galileo, alone gave to the human race the sequence of stars,
New constellations in heaven

– Johannes Faber


[1] Sidereus Nuncius or The Sidereal Messenger of Galileo Galilei, Translated with Introduction and Commentary by Albert van Heldon (University of Chicago Press, 1989). p. 11. Anyone that has held a pair of binoculars today can empathize with this pioneer astronomer.

[2] ibid, p. 40

[3] ibid, p. 62

[4] ibid, p. 64

[5] ibid, p. 66

5 Responses to “Some Looked & Couldn’t See: Galileo, Seeing and the Quest for Truth”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    and so it goes…we press on to the upward call of our Father in Christ,trying to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the BOND OF PEACE…

  2. fraizerbaz Says:

    It’s a shame that Galileo never had the chance to view the images from the Hubble.

    Happy Christmas, Bobby!

  3. downlights Says:

    great blog! i learn few things in this post, thanks for the share.

  4. John Says:

    i wish we would train our spyglass on the Sermon on the Mount.

  5. Dennis Says:

    Thanks for the insights. You did amazing research. Another phenomenon I have seen, especially with my traditional church friends, is seeing things that are not there. Percival Lowell saw canals full of water irrigating Martian gardens when he looked through his telescope.

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