On Galileo’s Birthday

Four hundred and forty-five years ago today, Galileo was born. One of the leading scientists of the early modern period, Galileo pioneered the use of the telescope, championed the Copernican heliocentric system, and was considered the father of modern science.

I received a few days ago a NASA press release — 2009 has been named the “International Year of Astronomy,” commemorating the fact that 400 years ago, in 1609, Galileo first turned a telescope on the heavens and began the modern era of skywatching, using scientific instruments to map the heavens as the naked eye had never been able to do so before.

The press release:


WASHINGTON — Galileo first turned his telescope to the heavens in 1609, marking the dawn of modern astronomy. To commemorate 400 years of exploring the universe, 2009 has been designated the International Year of Astronomy.

In conjunction with Galileo’s birthday on Feb. 15, NASA is releasing images from its Great Observatories — the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, and Chandra X-ray Observatory — to more than 100 planetariums, museums, nature centers and schools across the country.

The selected sites will unveil a large 9-square-foot print of the spiral galaxy Messier 101 that combines the optical view of Hubble, the infrared view of Spitzer, and the X-ray view of Chandra into one multi-wavelength picture. “It’s like using your eyes, night vision goggles and X-ray vision all at the same time,” said Dr. Hashima Hasan, lead scientist for the International Year of Astronomy at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Participating institutions also will display a matched trio of Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra images of Messier 101. Each image shows a different wavelength view of the galaxy that illustrates not only the different science each observatory conducts but also how far astronomy has come since Galileo.

Messier 101 is a spiral galaxy about 22 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. It is larger than our own Milky Way galaxy but similar in many ways. Hubble’s visible light view shows off the swirls of bright stars and glowing gas that give Messier 101 its nickname “the Pinwheel Galaxy.” In contrast, Spitzer’s infrared-light image sees into the spiral arms and reveals the glow of dust lanes where dense clouds can collapse to form new stars. Chandra’s X-ray uncovers the high-energy features in the galaxy, such as remnants of exploded stars or matter zooming around black holes. The juxtaposition of observations from these three telescopes provides an in-depth view of the galaxy for both astronomers and the public.

“The amazing scientific discoveries Galileo made four centuries ago are continued today by scientists using NASA’s space observatories,” said Denise Smith, the unveiling’s project manager at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “NASA’s Great Observatories are distributing huge prints of spectacular images so the public can share in the exploration and wonder of the universe.”

The unveilings will take place Feb. 14-28 at 76 museums and 40 schools and universities nationwide, reaching both big cities and small towns. Sites are planning celebrations involving the public, schools and local media.

The Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate supports the International Year of Astronomy Great Observatories image unveiling. The project is a collaboration among the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Spitzer Science Center in Pasadena, Calif., and the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Mass.

A list of places exhibiting these images can be found at: http://hubblesource.stsci.edu/events/iya/participants.php.

Find out more about NASA’s contributions to the International Year of Astronomy at: http://astronomy2009.nasa.gov.

People who know me know that my head is in space sometimes. I’ve sometimes wished I could live forever, so I could see Earth’s skies billions of years hence, when the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way collide. I’ve sometimes looked into the night sky and felt how completely small I am, how insignificant I am — and really, how insignificant any of us are — in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Just look up into the sky on a dark night, and think about the lights you see as being places, inpossibly vast distances away. It’s Galileo who helped to turn those lights into places, and it’s his achievement we remember this year, this International Year of Astronomy.

Happy birthday, Galileo.

One thought on “On Galileo’s Birthday

    By Allama Muhammad Yousuf Gabriel
    Our unscientific philosopher has rightly remarked that Galileo’s astronomy has affected a great revolution of thought. Indeed a revolution. A revolution not of thought only, but the revolution of mind also along with the revolution of earth. That is, the mind of man was at comparative rest when the earth was considered as stationary. But later, when it was believed that the earth was in rotation, mind of man also assumed rotation along with the earth. Since that day peace has left the mind, and the mind is in constant revolution. The discovery, of Galileo might mean much to the astronomers, but to the humanity in general he did no more than a topsyturvification of the former Ptolemic system. That is whereas ptolemy held the earth at rest by his right hand and moved the firmament with his left around the earth, Galileo after his life-long watching, held the sun stationary by his left hand and moved the earth around the sun by his right. This fact so trivial in itself, has indeed topsyturveyed the whole world. It caused a science-religion conflict as fierce as rent the heavens of humanity’s mind. It has reversed the entire outlook of man. It has snatched away all the peace and rest from human mind. It is like a man walking on his hands, head down, and legs up like an acrobat. The denizens of this earth who before the discovery of earth’s motion had gone about their business with a confidence that the earth beneath their feet, was at rest and reliable; are now seen in their hard endeavour to catch up with furiously racing earth, they being mercilessly tossed about; their bellies convulsed by the jerks and jumps , their hats flying backwards in the fierce back-rush of wind and they with their mouths wide open struggling to keep their balance, rising and falling alternately. And when we see this our condition, we are reminded of a verse of the Quran which reads:-
    “Is he, therefore, who goeth groveling upon his face, better directed than he who walketh upright in a straightway?”.
    (Quran 67 ¸22)
    It is amusing to observe Milton, in the midst of raging controversy about the rotation of earth, chanting his worthy verse and wonderful thought in so detached a manner:-
    What if the sun,
    Be center to the world, and other stars
    By his attractive venture and their own
    Incited, dance about him various rounds?
    Their wandering course, now high, now low, now hid,
    Progressive, retrogressive or standing still,
    In six thou seest and what if seventh to these,
    The Planet earth, so steadfast though she seem,
    Insensibly three different motions move.
    (Paradise Lost Book VIII)
    The Quran says also and astonishingly so:-
    “Say: Unto whom (belongeth) the earth and whosoever is therein, if ye have knowledge? They will say: Unto Allah. Say: Will ye not then remember? Say: Who is Lord of the Seven heavens, and Lord of the Tremendous Throne? They will say: Unto Allah (all that belongeth). Say: Will ye not then keep duty (unto him) ? Say: In Whose hand is the dominion over all things and He protecteth, while against Him there is no protection, if ye have knowledge? They will say: Unto Allah (all that belongeth). Say: How then are ye bewitched?”.
    (Quran 23 ¸ 84 to 89)
    Now whether the earth moved around the sun or the sun moved around the earth, or both moved around each other in a dance, or whether earth moved from West to East or East to West, what should all this mean to us mortals who have but to sojourn for a while in the earth and then leave it as strangers. The significance has to be attached to Him who owns all this. The real Master. And our ability, entity, genius and power be directed towards finding out the reality of Him who created all this that we see, touch, taste, hear and smell but fail to understand further the ultimate reality. And let the Creator be the object of our search, whether through his material works, the objects of our sense, or through the inner world of mind, for, that also is a world in itself, complete. Or else we die, all of us, and our boat sinks in atomic hell.
    Allama Muhammad Yousuf Gabriel
    Adara Afqar e Gabriel QA Street Nawababad Wah Cantt Distt Rawalpindi Pakistan

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