An astronomer called Cervantes

This article was originally published in Spanish  in the website of   Fundación madri+d. To access the original version, click here.The English translation was published in OpenMind, an interdisciplinary platform with bilingual articles in Spanish and English by te Fundación BBVA. The English version is here.

On the name of the satellites of Jupiter discovered by Galileo

Miguel de Cervantes died in 1616 a pauper. He is buried in the convent Trinitarians nuns in Madrid, where there is a search now underway for his tomb. As well as his monumental work Don Quixote, which he himself considered the first modern novel, his extensive literary production included poetry and theater. It also appears that his scientific culture must have been considerable, as he kept in touch with the advances that were made at the start of the 17th century following the invention of the telescope. It is even possible that he made a significant scientific contribution, naming the satellites of the planet Jupiter, which were identified when Galileo Galilei, the astronomer from Pisa, pointed the new instrument to the sky.

With the publication of “Sidereus Nuncius” (the Sidereal Messenger) in March 1610, Galileo began a real revolution, not only in astronomy but also in philosophy. He presented solid evidence overturning the interpretations of the world that had been firmly in place for centuries. In his work Galileo shows us an irregular and imperfect moon; he identifies a large number of new stars that are weaker than those seen with the naked eye; he reveals the complex nature of the Milky Way; and he discovers four bodies orbiting Jupiter, delivering a devastating blow to the Ptolemaic cosmology. In successive letters he continued his demolition of the static vision accepted by the Aristotelian orthodoxy. He observed the phases of Venus and the rings of Saturn, without identifying them as such; he also interpreted correctly that the sunspots are real features on the surface of the sun. In these and other discoveries, Galileo became immersed in major controversies that almost cost him his life when he faced the Roman Inquisition (censured in 1616 and condemned in 1633 to permanent house arrest).  One of these disputes, limited to the academic arena and not resolved until the 20th century, involved the German astronomer Simon Marius (the Latin version of the German name Simon Mayr or Mayer), who claimed co-discovery of Jupiter’s satellites and was attacked roundly by Galileo as a result. The alleged plagiarism, accepted for 300 years, was disproved decades ago, although references to it can still be found in some texts. Let’s look at the sequence of events: