JF Ptak Science Books Post 1385
Celebrating the 400th anniversary of recognizing that sense enhancers--like the telescope--do detect "real" things: Galileo and the Collegio Romano, March 24, 1611.
Is it possible that there are private realities for things, seeable by only one observer? Can the instrument that allowed such observations possible also provides them, the stuff existing purely for the instrument and nothing else? To some degree this is what was thought of Galileo and his revolutionary discoveries with the telescope, at least in the early days of verifying his work. Galileo's work was problematic for the Church because it provided yet more evidence for ancient and incorrect assertions of Ptolemaic astronomy, separating the distance between what was written in the scriptures about nature and the knowledge of the world and its physical and biological systems, and what actually existed int he world. It was an especially hard blow for Galileo to have revealed far more stars than anyone had thought possible, in the West at least--the stars int he Heavens had been a perfect assembly for many generations, and for their to be nearly an order of magnitude more observable stars through the telescope ran directly in the face of church doctrine. There was also the unwholesome bit about the Copernican system and our's being a heliocentric system, which was an old debate being lashed at still by the church even after many decades of superior evidence that could in no way support an Earth-centric system. Evidence and logic united to banish the Church's cosmology into a belief system.
It seemed to some as though the new stars that for the first true time expanded the celestial vault existed only within the slim optical tube with which their observer--Galileo--saw them. Ditto the moon of Jupiter. It came to pass within the confining walls of Vatican-recognized astronomy that the only verifiable and comprehensible observations of the heavens could be made with the naked eye. Galileo's instrument was difficult to use1 but it seemed also that when his contemporaries could see his discoveries that they simply wouldn't. Early in 1611 Galileo wrote to Kepler about the fantastic reluctance of his colleagues to be able to see what he saw: "What do you think of the chief philosophers of our gymnasium who, with the stubbornness of a viper, did not want to see the planets, the moon, or the telescope, even though I offered them the opportunity a thousand times?" Galileo was convinced that they needed not to see nature, but rather tried to reconcile the idea of what was being said was being seen with existing ideas and ideologies, saying that their "...truth is to be sought not in the world and in, nature, but in comparison of texts (as they call it)". ("Stress in the book of nature: The supplemental logic of Galileo's realism". MLN 118(3), 557-585, by Mario Biagioli.)
Galileo's 1610 discoveries were published later that same year in his Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger)2, but there was no real independent verification of his work for nearly another twelve months. The business end of the question, the lens that focused the entire issue so to speak, wasn't necessarily the issue of more stars or a craggy moon or Jupiter having moons or the Copernican system--it had to do with whether the telescope, but the very virtue of its placing a piece of glass between the human observer and nature, was altering the very perception of nature itself. Was the tube an imaginarium? Did it create the images seen by the observer? Did it materially change the things that the observer saw? Was the nature of the observing unit the thing that was changing nature rather than by showing it closer?
These questions really didn't receive an official answer until 24 March 1611, when four Jesuit mathematicians at the Collegio Romano reported to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621, and the church's chief defender of orthodoxy) that, yes indeed, Galileo's discoveries were real, that he had reported them accurately. The collision of the scholastic and humanist world views represented by the Catholic Church and Galileo wasn't a happy one, and this didn't mean that the Church necessarily accepted what Galileo had to say--far from it, as they wound up pursuing the old man, taking him to trial finally in 1633 (when he was 69 years old, following by 17 years the admonition and false injunction of 1616), convicting him of violating an injunction on teaching, discussing and writing about the Copernican system, and placing him under house arrest for the stuff he thought and wrote about. He died blind and still under house arrest at his villa in Arcetri, just north of Florence, in 1642.
But it is this business of the optics found to be not physically or theologically objectionable by the Collegio in 1611 that seems so incredibly important to me right now--that the telescope was found to be an instrument, that the human eye could be aided, and that this tube was not a place in which imaginary things happened or in which reality was bent, that was so very important.
The Inquisition's ban on most of Galileo's writings was lifted by the Church in in 1718, though his Dialago remained untouchable and condemned, a prohibition which remained mostly in place in 1758, when a lightly censored version of the book appeared and the general prohibition of works on heliocentrism was mostly dropped.3 It really wasn't until 1835, more than 225 years after the first publication of the Sidereus, that all traces of prohibition vanished from the registry of the Catholic Church.
It is a little odd to think about the Collegio and the telescope in the light of the invention of the microscope. There seemed to be no vestigial growth from the Church into the microscopic world or with the microscope itself, though most of these developments did come much later...except for the work of Hans and Zacharias Janssen, who did manage to make the first microscope in 1590, twenty years before Galileo's observations were published. But the monumental year for the microscope came twenty-five years after Galileo's death, with the publication of the spectacular Micrographia of Robert Hooke in 1667. And then in 1675 came Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who made close, micrographic investigations of blood, and who saw more deeply into the small world of humanity (being the first to describe cells and bacteria) than anyone ever before. But the Church seemed little interested in this or the instrument, hardly seen Hooke/Leeuwenhoek as a new, threatening Galileo or the microscope as the invasive telescope. But I do see where a similarity could exist.
1. The telescope was a tough one to operate, though Galileo himself was a skillful practioner. The 'scope was big (more than three feet long), its field of view very narrow, and its aperture dropped down to a few centimeters. And of course there was the steadiness question. All in all, not an easy instrument to bring to bhear on your subject.
2. This was also of course the first scientific treatise on astronomy using the obervations obtained with a telescope. In it were also reported the very rough appearance of the surface of the Moon, the differences in the appearanes of the stars and the planets, the moons of Jupiter and the large number of never-before-seen stars.
3. Uncensored versions of the Dialogo and De Revolutionibus were still prohibited.