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updated: Aug 24, 2013, 11:00 AM
By Chuck McPartlin
We were in Italy at the end of July for a UCSB International Hall 1979 reunion,
and took advantage of our proximity to Florence to drop in on a famous astronomer.
Although the scenery was reminiscent of Santa Barbara, Florence was hot, humid, and
swarming with tourists, so the lines to get into all of the famous art galleries
were long and miserable. But right down the bank of the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio,
and next door to the Uffizi, is the Museo Galileo, with air conditioning and no
Those strange symbols engraved in the pavement are part of a large solar calendar
in the plaza at the front of the museum.
Inside, you are greeted by a marble bust of Galileo sculpted in 1842, 200 years
after his death.
Galileo Galilei lived from 1564 to 1642, and is often credited with the invention
of the telescope. It is now believed that the telescope was most likely invented by
a Dutch spectacle make named Hans Lippershey in 1608. The story is that some children
playing in his shop held up two different sets of eyeglasses, and commented that they
could see a church steeple in the distance. Hans immediately pounced on the concept,
and made a telescope. Word got around, and when he tried to apply for a patent, it was
denied on the grounds that several other people were making telescopes, which became
somewhat of a fad among those who could afford one.
Galileo heard about the telescope, and immediately constructed one for himself,
improving the eyepiece with his own better design. Even today, cheap telescopes often
come with Galilean eyepieces.
Although he didn't invent the telescope, he was among the first to observe the sky and
write about it, and reach a large audience. He observed that the Moon was not a perfect
smooth sphere, that Jupiter had four large moons in orbit around it, and that Venus went
through phases like the Earth's Moon, the sequence of which implied that it was orbiting
the Sun. Four hundred years ago, these were heretical ideas that got you in trouble, and
Galileo wasn't exactly shy about broadcasting the news. As a result, he spent the last
years of his life under house arrest.
Two telescopes known to have been made and used by Galileo are on display at the museum.
The upper scope was used in many of his early observations, and the lower one was richly
decorated in red leather and gilt, made for a Florentine nobleman. They've faded a bit
over the years, but still work.
Also on display is the lens from the telescope that Galileo used to make his observations
of the moons of Jupiter, now known as the Galilean moons. It was dropped by a subsequent
owner, so it's a bit rough around the edges. It's only about three inches across.
Nearby is a brass Jovilabe, a complex analog instrument designed by Galileo to compute
the positions of the Galilean moons for a given date and time. Alternatively, he hoped
it could be used to find the standard time anywhere in the world by observing the moons,
and thus solve the longitude problem for navigation. Alas, it was not accurate enough, in
part because he did not know that light had a finite speed (although he suspected it), and
Jupiter is far enough away that the light travel time is significant for such calculations.
The Museo Galileo is really called Museo di Storia della Scienza, and as such has numerous
historical scientific instruments on display, including astrolabes, telescopes, surveying
tools, thermometers, globes, clocks, and a large, intricate armillary sphere based on the
Ptolemaic geocentric model of the cosmos.
And, on a somewhat less scientific note, there is a display of some of the fingers from
Galileo's right hand, and one of his teeth. You can read about their journeys in the links
below. I'm sure many people don't appreciate the gesture, even if it is under glass.
After a tough day of sightseeing in the heat, it was nice to head back to the hills of
Chianti, indulge in some good food and wine, and enjoy a late night soak in the swimming
pool, looking up at Galileo's sky.
Links for a Cloudy Evening:
Lost Fingers Found
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