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:

100 Years of Cosmic Ray, and the Contribution from Bandung

August this year 2012, the scientific community is celebrating the 100 years of ‘cosmic ray’ discovery. I will not give much on how it’s discovered since already covered on other articles, such as this, this and this. Instead i only discuss about the contribution from a laboratorium in Java, and how the result helping on paving the way to the study of the cosmic ray.

Hypatia of Alexandria

I have watched a very interesting movie last weekend: “Ágora”, by the Spanish-Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar. It is a story about a very interesting character, the astronomer Hypatia, who live in the IV-V centuries, during the end of the Roman empire. We know for sure few things about her life and death. She was killed during by Christian zelots during these turbulent years, when paganism (and the classical culture) was dying, and a new order and way of understanding the world was appearing

As a matter of fact, I do not care whether the story in the movie is accurate or is the re-interpretation of several historical facts using our own situation. What really matter to me are two facts:

First, Hypatia herself, as scientist. The way she understands her environment, her compromise with knowledge. Her humility recognizing her limitations and, above all, her flexibility to reevaluate her initial assumptions and to challenge what she believed previously to be the truth.

Second, the intolerance, then and now. There are always bigots (whether religious extremist, political, moralist or otherwise) trying to restrict knowledge and freedom. They know science and culture are barriers against barbarism, and they are one of the first targets.

I have read in the newspaper that the movie might not be distributed in USA, since some people believe it is anti-christian (it is not), despite its quality, the important casting and the amazing reconstruction of the ancient city of Alexandria, where it takes place. It would be a shame if the intolerants win again.

For those of you who didn´t have the opportunity to watch “Cosmos”, by Carl Sagan, I do recommend to try to, at least, have a look at the episode discussing the destruction of the Library and the Serapeum.

After 1600 years, Hypatia is still a example: of what a scientist ought to be, but, above everything, how a human being has to behave.

Información en español


Night talk under the starlight

“Nasir rolled over on his back, with my glasses, and began to study the stars, counting aloud first one group and then another; crying out with surprise at discovering little lights not noticed by his unaided eye. Auda set us on to talk of telescopes – of the great ones – and of how man in three hundred years had so far advanced from his first essay that now he built glasses as long as a tent, through which he counted thousands of unknown stars. ‘And the stars – what are they?’ We slipped into talk of suns beyond suns, sizes and distance beyond wit. ‘What will now happen with this knowledge?’ asked Mohammed. ‘We shall set to, and many learned and some clever men together will make glasses as more powerful than ours, as ours than Galileo’s; and yet more hundreds of astronomers will distinguish and reckon yet more thousands of now unseen stars, mapping them, and giving each one its name. When we see them all, there will be no night in heaven.'”

Fragment taken from “Seven Pillars of Wisdom“, T.E. Lawrence


The immobility of the Earth, the condemnation of the copernican theory and the tribulations of Galileo

“…Give me the ships, with adapted sails to the heavenly wind; there will be fearless people , even if they face the immensity. And for those descendants who in short time will venture themselves by these ways we will prepare, oh Galileo, myself a lunar astronomy and you a jovian one.” Johannes Kepler to Galileo Galilei in “Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo”

This year we celebrate, among other facts, the fourth centennial since Galileo Galilei used for the first time a rudimentary telescope to observe the sky and, doing so, to open a new universe to humankind. So, as a small homage, I would like to write his story. At least part of it, including the cost he had to pay for daring to have a different view, a different behavior …

… Certain dates would have to be erased of the calendar, are deserving of the opprobrium and the shame. One of them is the 24th of February, so close to his birthday on February 15th. On that date in the year 1616, a commission of consulting theologians of the Inquisition, censured the heliocentric theory of Copernicus and reaffirmed the Earth immobility.

Cover  of “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (On the movement of the celestial spheres),  by Nicholas Copernicus, in the 1543 edition.
Cover of “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (On the movement of the celestial spheres), by Nicholas Copernicus, in the 1543 edition.

In fact the process was somehow more complicated. It began the 19 of February with the proposal of censorship of an expert belonging to the commission, which did not include an astronomer. It continued with a meeting of the Congregation of Holy Office, which started by the reprimand to Galileo by order of Pope Paulo V, carried out on the following day by Cardinal Bellarmino. At that moment, it is prescribed to Galileo that he must leave the opinion that Earth moves. On March 1sr, Congregation of the Index prohibited a series of books related to the copernicanism and its validity from a theological point. Moreover, the copernican work “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (On the movement of the celestial spheres) is suspended until its “correction”. We should remember that the heliocentric theory, and the mathematical model which accompanied it, were essential to calculate in a simple and accurate way, the movements of planets, and was also were related to the calendar reform. This was probably the real reason why was not forbidden at that time. The decree was publish several days later, on March the 5th.

Cover of the edition princeps of “Sidereus nuncius” (Sidereal messenger), a short pamphlet in Latin published by Galileo in 1610, which will break down for ever  the geocentric and aristotelian visions of the universe. Photo by the author, from a book preserved in the Crawford Library, Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.
Cover of the edition princeps of “Sidereus nuncius” (Sidereal messenger), a short pamphlet in Latin published by Galileo in 1610, which will break down for ever the geocentric and aristotelian visions of the universe. Photo by the author, from a book preserved in the Crawford Library, Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.

The story of the tribulations of Galileo and his encounter and mix-ups with the ecclesiastical hierarchy, by all means, do not begin nor finish there. The beginning can be probably located in 1609, when Galile receives the news of the existence of a wonderful instrument, composed of lenses, which was able “to approach” the objects. With this limited information, Galileo built its first telescope during the summer of that one year. In December the 1st he already was observing the firmament with telescopes of suitable quality. And it is then when a new universe opened up for him, and also for us, intellectual inheritors of the Galilean work. Between its multiple discoveries, we can name the spots present on the surface of the Sun, the mountains of the Moon, the phases of Venus, the four main jovian satellites, the rings of Saturn (without realizing its nature), the explanation of the tides, the large stellar density within the Milky Way, the use of the telescope and the pendulum as scientific instruments, laws of dynamics, studies on the how objects fall, among others. It is indeed the discovery of the sunspots what it puts to him in direct collision with the order of the Jesuits, due to the dispute about the priority of the discovery and the meaning of this phenomenon that he maintained with father Christopher Scheiner, who insisted on the sky incorruptibility. Another dispute with another member of that religious order, in this case Horazio Grassi, was due to the nature of the comets. Moreover several intellectuals related to other religious orders (although also Galileo also found allies within some of them) will attack Galileo in an implacable way.

Several years later, on June 22nd 1633, in spite of the protection of the Dukes of Tuscan, the powerful Medici family, Galileo will be formally condemned by the Inquisition and forced to abjure, on his knees and under the threat of torture, of the Copernican theory, which was already described as heretical. The process was at the request of his supposed friend, the Pontiff Urban VIII, who had been elevated to the papal throne in 1623.

The abjuration of Galileo Galilei before Roman Inquisition,  June 22nd of 1633, according to a picture of century XIX painted by Joseph-Nicholas Robert-Fleury.
The abjuration of Galileo Galilei before Roman Inquisition, June 22nd of 1633, according to a picture of century XIX painted by Joseph-Nicholas Robert-Fleury.

The story of Galileo and prohibition of his book “Dialogue on both great systems of world”, where he clearly exposed the superiority of copernican theory which situated the Sun in the center of the universe (and therefore forced the Earth to move around it, which was against the literal interpretation of certain passages of the Bible) against the geocentric and geostationary interpretation of Claudius Ptolomy is, truly, fascinating. Galileo was able to publish the book in spite of the limitations imposed by Urban VIII during the edition process, which was completely supervised by the Roman hierarchy. As a matter of fact, they gave him, initially, the “imprimatur” (approval), the official declaration by the roman church of being free of moral or doctrinal error.

All this process is, in truth, of great complexity. It is worth of the best novel about political conspiracies in the Italian Renaissance. The antecedents are located practically a century before (with the development of the heliocentric theory by Nicholas Copernicus). It includes the procedural methods of the Inquisition, that were avoided or even they were contravened in the case of Galileo. It also contains an ideological war between those supporting him and his enemies in the academic world. And, as the perfect stage, the international politics, including the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism and the confrontation between Spain and France for the European supremacy. In fact, it is this fight which forced the reorientation of the policy of Urban VIII. And it might as well have an influence in the pope change of opinion, so drastic, with respect to the work of Galileo. The end of the story, if it has finished, reaches the XX century (starting in 1979), with the revision of the case by a commission of experts at the suggestion of the pope John Paul II. The so called Galileo’s case seems to be filled with multiple manipulations by Roman Inquisition and by several historians, including fraud and the shameless distortion of the available evidences.

“Eppur si muove”… Probably Galileo, old and defeated, did not pronounce this phrase when leaving the room where he was forced to abjure the heliocentric theory. And nevertheless Earth moves…

In any case, Galileo Galilei is one of the greatest scientists for all times and father of the modern Physics. Thanks to him, we can, indeed, affirm “eppur si muove”.