Created on: February 19, 2013
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is well known for having dared to defy the Roman Catholic Church by agreeing with the theory, formulated in 1512 by the Polish astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543), that the planets including Earth orbited the Sun. Galileo paid for his “heresy” by spending the last eight years of his life under virtual house arrest. However, what is less well known is that it was the tool he used in his researches, as much as the conclusions he came to, that got him into trouble with the Church and the Inquisition.
Copernicus had come to his conclusions on purely theoretical grounds, without making any direct observations of the motions of the planets. Even had he wished to do so he would have been very limited in what he could see, because the telescope was not invented until after his death.
The first practical telescope is believed to have been developed by Hans Lippershey, a lens maker of Middleburg in the Netherlands, in 1608. However, it is not known who first discovered that if one looked through two lenses, one concave and the other convex, distant objects appeared to be much closer. What Lippershey did differently was to apply for a patent for his “far sight” device, or “tele scope”, which is why he is credited with being the inventor.
Galileo and the telescope
Attempts to credit Galileo with the invention of the telescope are certainly wide of the mark, but he did make a number of significant improvements in telescope design, being able to increase its power of magnification from 3x to 30x very soon after first experimenting with a Lippershey instrument.
Galileo’s real place in the story of the telescope is that he was the first person to use it as a means of trying to prove the heliocentric theory propounded by Copernicus, as well as making a number of other important astronomical discoveries.
However, there was a problem when it came to dealing with the Church, in terms of demonstrating his discoveries. This was that the telescope was doing something that enabled mere mortals to do things that had not been ordained by Man’s creator. It was acceptable to wear lenses as spectacles, because that was only restoring one’s sight to the level that God had given one, but the telescope went much further than that. Only God was “all seeing”, and to seek to emulate God in this respect was nothing short of heresy.
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