Saturday, April 04, 2009

Pointing heavenward

I think it was Lyra who mentioned here that she had seen Galileo's finger in Florence. And, yep, it is there - or was there -- in the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, along with the Galileo's telescope, microscope and compass, and other artifacts I cannot remember in detail. I do remember standing with my three young kids before the spooky, shriveled finger, pointing upwards as if to the stars. I told them the story of the first astronomical telescope -- constructed by Galileo 400 years old this year -- and the remarkable observations he made in the winter of 1609-1610, discoveries that would change the way we think about our place in the world.

The museum in Florence is currently undergoing renovations, and many of the artifacts are temporarily on display in Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, as part of a show that opens today called Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy. From a review in the New York Times, it would appear the exhibits seek to place Galileo's discoveries in the context of the cultural milieu created by the ruling Medici family of Florence, especially Cosimo I (1519-1574). That culture was secular, curious, bent on discovery. As we all know, it produced great art; it also produced maps, globes, timekeepers, survey instruments, astronomical instruments, and geometrical devices, things of immense beauty, as if each and every one were an artfully-crafted lamp that when properly stroked might yield a genie.

These were instruments of knowing, in a culture that was more interested in questions than answers, more interested in this world than the (supposed) next one. I have quoted here before the physicist Heinz Pagels: "The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration."

Galileo did not invent the telescope. As far as we know, he was the first to turn it on the stars. This seems surprising; to us, telescope means the dark sky. The instrument was important; more important was an open mind, prepared to see the unexpected, ready to entertain contradiction with reigning orthodoxy -- the genie that gave us modernity.