December 3, 2012
The Unveiling of the Heavens
In summer of 1609, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) pointed his revolutionary astronomical telescope to the heavens under the starry Venetian sky; his greatly important observations unveiled the mysteries of universe and would end up changing the course of scientific thought forever. Galileo lived in an age where there was much status quo, when scientists and philosophers would accept scientific and religious doctrine that had stood for hundreds, if not thousands, of years instead of challenging the accepted knowledge in favor of intellectual progress. Galileo’s scientific methods lead to significant discoveries explaining key scientific laws, such as the orientation of the universe, the motion of free falling bodies, and the Galilean principle of relativity. Galileo’s equal interest in a diversity of studies from the largest of celestial bodies to the motion of minuscule free falling pebbles and water droplets upon a ship show his immense scientific interest and his discoveries cannot be overstated as he has been widely accredited as the founder of a new rational science.
The science of antiquity which scholars were taught in Galileo’s time was an amalgamation of religious doctrine and Aristotelian philosophy reinterpreted to match with the teachings of the church. As a result, there was little scientific advancement. The scientific knowledge that was accepted was greatly influenced by the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275), a religious scholar who studied the writings of Aristotle and interpreted them in a religious context. An important belief of Aristotle’s study of astronomy was motion by an “unmoved divine mover,” which sustained the observable motion of the celestial bodies. Aquinas interpreted Aristotle’s passage with the mover being God and the planetary motions done by angels. The important themes to Aquinas’s astronomical philosophies were his beliefs that the universe was bounded in size as a perfect sphere which would orbit evenly around the permanently located Earth in its center. Convictions like this were spawned by biblical references such as “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved” (Psalm 96:10) clearly affirming the Church’s stance. This theory stood for hundreds of years and was supported by scientists and philosophers, whom Galileo would characterize in his dialogues as Simplicio, even after Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed the modern astronomical theory of a heliocentric universe (Frova 26). Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism focused on two main ideas: first, the Earth rotates about its axis every twenty-four hours, and secondly, it makes a full cycle around the Sun every year (365.25 days) (Cohen 35). However, these scientists chose to accept the archaic hypothesizes of Eudoxes (410-355 BC), Ptolemy (90-168 AD), and the Church who went to great efforts in order to prove that the Earth is the center of the universe using proposals such as elaborate motions, called epicycles, to match with what they saw (Cohen 28). Even after Copernicus proposed his theory of heliocentricity with a rotating Earth, instead of “post hoc arguments” where he believed that the convoluted motions of epicycles and equants did not show physical reality, his more parsimonious theory was not accepted for many more years until Galileo made his astronomical experiments in the seventeenth century, reevaluating Aristotelian physics of nature.
Galileo was able to discredit a major complaints used by some scientists to disprove the heliocentric theory with a rotating Earth. These scholars that favored the geocentric model with a stationary earth believed that the rotations of the Earth would have observable properties. The earth rotates around the sun at a speed of 100,000 feet per sec (Cohen 10); how could it be possible for people to not observe this motion? Given the situation of dropping a ball from a tall building (like...