Friday, January 16, 2009

Galileo Galilei 400 Year Anniversary of Telescope and International Year of Astronomy

ANSA (Florence) - Events marking 400 years since Galileo Galilei's first landmark observations of the night sky kicked off in Florence, Italy, Thursday, part of global celebrations for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA).

The two-day official launch of IYA takes place in Paris but Tuscany will play a special part in the yearlong initiative as the birthplace and home of the 'father of modern science' - Galileo Galilei.

Galileo is called the father of modern science not because of his astronomy work, but because of how he approached the questions of the universe. Philosophers beginning with Aristotle concerned themselves with why things moved. Galileo focused on HOW things move through observations and measurements. Galileo sought quantifiable entities such as time, distance, and acceleration to describe the way everyday objects move, bend, break, and fall.

"Philosophy is written in this grand book the universe," Galileo said. "But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and to read the alphabet in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it."

Aristotelian philosophers of Galileo's day rejected this mathematical approach to physics, on the grounds that mathematicians pondered immaterial concepts, while Nature consisted entirely of matter. They viewed the study of mathematics as inferior—even irrelevant—to natural philosophy. Nature, in their view, could not be expected to follow precise numerical rules.

But Galileo was correct: "There will be opened a gateway and a road to a large and excellent science," he predicted, "into which minds more piercing than mine shall penetrate to recesses still deeper." Sir Isaac Newton, born within a year of Galileo's death, continued Galileo's work by codifing mathematical laws of motion and universal gravitation.

Posterity agrees that Galileo's great genius lay in his ability to observe the world at hand, to understand the behavior of its parts, and to describe these in terms of mathematical proportions. For these achievements, Albert Einstein dubbed Galileo "the father of modern physics—indeed of modern science altogether."

Speaking at the official inauguration ceremony, the president of Italy's National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), Tommaso Maccacaro, said the decision to hold the IYA in 2009 was perfect. ''There can be no doubt that 2009 was the right year to celebrate astronomy as it is exactly 400 years since Galileo made his first observations by telescope,'' said Maccacaro. ''These observations revolutionized our culture and our conception of the role of humankind within the universe''.

The biggest show of the year is a multimedia event at Florence's Palazzo Strozzi, opening in March, entitled 'Galileo: Images of the Universe from Antiquity to the Telescope'.

This will examine the history of conceptions of the cosmos, with archaeological finds, scientific instruments, star maps, drawings, paintings and precious manuscripts from around the world.

''The multidisciplinary nature of this show and the use of different multimedia will provide an absolutely first-rate experience for visitors,'' said Florence museum superintendent, Cristina Acidini.

''It will bring to life the instruments and models used by scientists that have studied the sky and the planets over the years''.

IYA will launch 'The Portal To The Universe' website, containing a host of news, photographs, videos and information open to everyone, allowing users to tap and share live data.

Galileo (1564-1642) created his first telescope in 1608, based on descriptions from the Netherlands where the device was invented.

He initially produced a lens able to magnify objects threefold and soon after created a lens with a magnification of 32.

This put him in a nearly unique position, as he was one of the few people at the time with a lens powerful enough to observe the sky.

He started making regular recorded observations in 1609 and in 1610, discovered three of Jupiter's moons. He initially thought they were stars but observing their changing position, soon concluded they were orbiting Jupiter.

Galileo later used his powerful telescope to observe the various phases of Venus.

Both sets of observations played a crucial role in his conclusion that the sun was at the center of the universe, rather than the Earth, as was commonly believed at the time.

Church opposition to Galileo's sun-centered model flared up immediately in 1612 and would dog Galileo for the rest of his life.

In 1633 he was tried and convicted of heresy and a ban was imposed on the publication or reprinting of any of his works. He was then placed under house arrest, where he spent the remaining nine years of his life.

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