Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Galileo and the bird of superior wisdom

I was one of those weird science-class geeks in junior high school.  You know, the guy with messy hair, half-untucked shirt and a hand that flies up every time the science teacher asks a question about the Periodic Table.

Monday, however, I started to wonder if I had actually snoozed through all my science classes and three seasons of the Discovery Channel. It just took a trip to the Galileo Museum.

You remember Galileo -- the guy who invented the telescope, figured out the Earth orbits the Sun (not vice versa) and got into trouble with the Church for saying so.

That was good enough for a place in history, but it is as incomplete as saying Edison invented the light bulb.  Galileo Galilie was a knowledge engine of epic proportions who explained everything from the structure of the solar system to the characteristics of mass to why tides go in and out.

The Museo Galileo (also called The History of Science Museum) has been in Florence since 1927, but the various collections of scientific artifacts have been in town since Cosimo Medici began picking up gadgets in the late 1300s.

Galileo's models
What sets these early science fair exhibits apart from modern museums is that Galileo and his peers had to explain basic science to a doubting public.  Not just explain, but demonstrate in obvious, slap-up-the-side of the head specifics.

So Galileo spent much of his 77 years designing models that showed how the world works in simple terms. "Models" is a poor descriptive. These are beautiful pieces of art that could earn their own places in sculpture museums.

Galileo's final commentary
With polished pieces of wood, he redefined our understanding of nature. With a hollow wooden tube and two pieces of glass, he redefined our understanding of the cosmos. But consider this: Galileo's telescope was about 30x power -- the same as many binoculars.  With it, though, he saw the craters of the moon, counted the moons of Jupiter and found Saturn had rings. Either the crisp night air was much clearer in 17th century Florence or the man had the eyes of an eagle.

One thing my 8th grade science teacher did tell me was that Galileo was not very popular with the powers that be. The Inquisition threatened him with torture if he insisted that the Earth moves around the sun. He gave in and recanted. Popular legend, however, says that has he left the courtroom he turned and said "And yet it moves."

Maybe. That would seem to be a quick passport to the rack. But he did get in the last word -- or at least the last gesture. When he died, has acolytes cut off his middle finger and preserved it. Today it sits prominently in a glass case, surrounded by his persuasive models, flipping off the doubters of his world and ours.

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