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In January I ran a post here at The Catholic Astronomer about the newly-discovered letter that Galileo wrote and (according to the journal Nature) lied about—click here for that post. The Nature articles concerning Galileo’s letter were “news” or “opinion” articles, written by Nature’s editors and correspondents. They were not research papers written by the scholars who found the letter: Michele Camerota of the Università degli Studi di Cagliari, and Franco Giudice and Salvatore Ricciardo of Università degli Studi di Bergamo. Now a scholarly, peer-reviewed paper, written by those scholars regarding the letter, has been published, and so I thought I’d follow up with a little analysis.
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Here is another “Astronomy in Art & Architecture” discovery (click here for all the “Art & Architecture” posts): St. Joseph Church in Leitchfield, Kentucky (Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, USA). St. Joseph is just off the main square in Leitchfield, and it invites the passer-by to stop in and take a look. Hey, if you were touring through a small town in Italy you would want to make a stop in the town church, so of course you want to do the same thing when touring through a small town in Kentucky!
Above the altar in St. Joseph, which is a lovely church to stop in and see, is a painting of the death of St. Joseph. According to the book Freely You Have Received, Freely Give: 75 Years of the Diocese of Owensboro Kentucky, this painting came from the cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky—this being the cathedral when Bardstown was the seat of the first inland diocese in the US (the Diocese of Bardstown having been formed at the same time as the dioceses of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston; the seat of the diocese was eventually transferred to Louisville, Kentucky). Freely You Have Received says that the exact age of the painting is unknown, but it dates to at least 1850.
And, painted on the ceiling above the painting, is a very cool little constellation of stars, shown below. I think this constellation is particularly interesting in how the stars are painted with differing magnitudes and colors. This painting seems not to be intended to be realistic, but nevertheless it is a fair representation of stars as seen by the naked eye. It is interesting that the colors are reasonable approximations for cooler, redder stars like Antares or Betelgeuse, and hotter, whiter stars like Sirius. The mottled background is interesting, too—like the stars are being viewed on a day that is not perfectly clear. My guess is that the artist who painted the constellation had done some stargazing.
Is there any symbolism or other meaning—religious, artistic, or otherwise—involved in this constellation? Readers of The Catholic Astronomer, do let us know if you can see any such thing in these stars!
Believe it or not, there is a connection to be found between these stars in St. Joseph Church in Leitchfield, and the Vatican Observatory, and even the governor of Kentucky! St. Joseph is the old home parish of Fr. Richard Meredith, who in 2017 was the pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul church in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Hopkinsville was the point of greatest eclipse during the 2017 solar eclipse. And Br. Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory, spoke at Sts. Peter and Paul the day before the eclipse, at the invitation of Fr. Meredith. And when Kentucky’s governor, Matt Bevin, heard that Br. Guy was in the area, he sought him out, travelling down gravel backcountry roads in his SUV with a State Trooper to escort him, to find the remote location where Br. Guy was observing the eclipse. So there’s the connection!
Indeed, perhaps looking at these stars is part of why Fr. Meredith developed an interest in science. And, perhaps, were these stars not painted on the ceiling of St. Joseph, then Fr. Meredith might not have been so science-minded, and might not have ever thought to invite Br. Guy to Hopkinsville. And then Br. Guy might have ended up viewing the eclipse from some lesser location than Kentucky (any location not in Kentucky qualifying as lesser). And then Gov. Bevin would have never met him, and the pictures below would not exist!
On March 7 the “Google Doodle” featured mathematician Olga Ladyzhenskaya. If you clicked on the “doodle” you probably saw something like the Wikipedia entry that showed up at the top corner of the screen:
Olga Aleksandrovna Ladyzhenskaya was a Russian mathematician. She was known for her work on partial differential equations and fluid dynamics. She provided the first rigorous proofs of the convergence of a finite difference method for the Navier–Stokes equations.
I wanted to find out a little more about this person, and in searching around I came upon a 10-year-old blog post from Mihai Caragiu, Professor of Mathematics at Ohio Northern University, who noted a “photograph of a 79 years old Ladyzhenskaya in her apartment in St. Petersburg featuring an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos [Mother of God]”. I could not really tell for sure that the woman in the picture was Ladyzhenskaya, and there was not additional information, but a little more searching quickly turned up an article in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society (vol. 51, num. 11, December 2004) on Ladyzhenskaya. Within that article (entitled “Olga Alexandrovna Ladyzhenskaya (1922–2004)” was the photo Caragiu had noted, with caption saying that this was indeed “Ladyzhenskaya, age 79, in her St. Petersburg apartment”. Next to Ladyzhenskaya’s desk as seen in the photo is obviously an icon of Mary holding Jesus. And, on the other end of her desk is another piece of religious artwork. It is too small to see clearly, but it seems to be Jesus or a saint: someone in a robe, with a halo or aura around the head.
Of course, some religious artwork does not necessarily mean Ladyzhenskaya was a person of faith. But, a little more digging led to the Cornell University Library and The Eugene B. Dynkin Collection of Mathematics Interviews. In a 1990 interview with the mathematician Anatoly M. Vershik, Dynkin and Vershik talked about Ladyzhenskaya. And, what appears in the interview? That her father tried to save the children of a priest whom the communist authorities were about to exile, and she was herself a charitable and “profoundly religious” person. So, it seems the religious artwork was there in Ladyzhenskaya’s apartment to be more than just art.
I frequently write on this blog about how my students, or visitors to my college’s observatory, or others have expressed how they perceive some divide between religion and science, and I write that this perception is a problem, especially for science, which needs allies, not enemies. But as far as I can tell, such a divide does not actually exist. Witness Olga Ladyzhenskaya:
- Honored by Google
- Profoundly religious, charitable woman who kept religious icons at her desk.
If you like this little post on Olga Ladyzhenskaya, and you like how it is a completely different perspective from anything else you would have found when you clicked that Google Doodle, then consider clicking right here and supporting the outfit that makes this possible—the Vatican Observatory Foundation. The VOF is the outfit that keeps the Vatican’s U.S. telescope (on Mount Graham in Arizona) running. That’s why this blog exists—to keep that telescope doing science. Support the blog—support the telescope—support science.
Annie Jump Cannon was an astronomer with Harvard Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was one of a number of women who were hired by Edward Pickering, the director of the observatory at that time. Cannon’s specialty was stars and their spectra. She worked on the Henry Draper catalog of stars, and she is the one who developed the OBAFGKM classification system for stars (O stars being the hottest, M being the coolest). If you know that the sun has a spectral type G, or that Rigel is a type B, you are referencing Cannon’s classification system.
But Cannon was the author of another book besides the Henry Draper catalog. When she was in her late 20’s she went to Spain to photograph an eclipse of the sun. Cannon had received a degree in physics from Wellesley college. After graduation she had returned home, where she taught herself photography, tutored students in math and history, and played organ for Sunday school at the Methodist church in her home town of Dover, Delaware (this despite having lost some of her hearing owing to a bout of scarlet fever while in college). Her trip to Spain apparently became an opportunity to combine her interests. She toured Spain, photographing and writing about the things she saw, with a focus on historical sites and churches. She produced a small book about her trip, entitled In the Footsteps of Columbus, published in 1893. Fortunately for us, a very nice electronic copy of Cannon’s book is available on-line via The Internet Archive. Click here to browse Cannon’s book.
By 1896 Cannon had been hired by Pickering, and her astronomy career was set in motion—she would work at Harvard for her entire career. There is a nice children’s book about Cannon, entitled Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer, by Carole Gerber. It is illustrated by Christina Wald. Many of the illustrations are closely based on historical photographs, so they give a reasonably accurate portrayal of what Annie Jump Cannon did as an astronomer.
This is a "re-run" of a post that originally ran on June 1, 2016.
The other day, while searching the web for something regarding the history of astronomy, I happened upon the strangest video. In it were what appeared to be Philips Lansbergen and Johann Georg Locher (featured in recent blog posts). They were debating the idea of the multiverse and the idea of invoking the infinite in science. Also present were Thomas Digges and Giovanni Battista Riccioli. And with these four late-sixteenth/early-seventeenth century figures were four others from entirely different times: the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, the twentieth-century historian of science Alexandre Koyré, and physicists Brian Greene and Max Tegmark, from today! The conversation was most remarkable. I would include a link, but the video crashed my laptop, I had been too absorbed in watching it to think to copy and save the address, and now for some reason I can’t find the video again. Fortunately, along with the video was a transcript of the discussion, a section of which I downloaded because the audio quality was poor and I needed the transcript to follow along. So I am posting that here.
The section I downloaded followed a lengthy round of general introductions, in which there seemed to be some bafflement among the men about what they were doing, how they came to be together, and how they all happened to be speaking one language. But then Locher, who was young, charismatic, and brash, and who said that he had been working hard to get up to speed on modern ideas and terminology, seized control of the conversation and brought it around to the subject of the multiverse, going directly at Lucretius. This is where the section of transcript that I managed to copy begins:
LOCHER: Mr. Lucretius, you seem to have been an early adopter of this multiverse idea — this idea of an infinitude of universes contained within a larger structure from which those universes emerge and into which they eventually dissolve. And this all happens through the undirected chaos of the particles within the larger structure? LUCRETIUS: Yes, for Off to all regions round, on either side, Above, beneath, throughout the universe End is there none — as I have taught, as too The very thing of itself declares aloud, And as from nature of the unbottomed deep Shines clearly forth. Nor can we once suppose In any way 'tis likely, (seeing that space To all sides stretches infinite and free, And seeds, innumerable in number, in sum Bottomless, there in many a manner fly, Bestirred in everlasting motion there), That only this one earth and sky of ours Has been created.
DIGGES: Infinite to all sides and free, yes, but it is the realm of stars of our own universe that extends infinitely, not a realm of universes as Lucretius supposes. And this realm indeed has been created by God as the palace of felicity, garnished with innumerable perpetual shining glorious lights — stars that far excel our sun both in quantity and quality — it is the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy, the habitacle for the Elect! LUCRETIUS: No, not so — this world too has been By nature fashioned, even as seeds of things By innate motion chanced to clash and cling — After they'd been in many a manner driven Together at random, without design, in vain. LANSBERGEN: A great poet but a heathen. LOCHER: My point is not theological. I want to talk about evidence as relates to an infinite multiverse, and about reason, and about how compelling Lucretius’s idea should be, in the absence of data to support or contradict it. GREENE: This subject is highly speculative. I’m not convinced — and, generally speaking, no one should be convinced — of anything not supported by hard data. But I find it curious and compelling that numerous developments in physics, if followed sufficiently far, bump into some variation on the multiverse theme. What you have been describing here so far might be considered some variation on what I call a Quilted Multiverse. LOCHER: And you think within such a multiverse there are other versions of ourselves out there? GREENE: Yes, in — LUCRETIUS: Yes! as at last those seeds together dwelt, Which, when together of a sudden thrown, Should always furnish the commencements fit Of mighty things — the earth, the sea, the sky, And race of living creatures. Thus, I say, Again, again, 'tmust be confessed there are Such congregations of matter otherwhere, Like this our world which vasty ether holds In huge embrace. GREENE: Exactly. To those who will watch our conversation on video, I would add to what Lucretius says by pointing out that in an infinite cosmos, there’s a galaxy that looks just like the Milky Way, with a solar system that’s the spitting image of ours — DIGGES: Ah, an infinite cosmos! Truly, we can never sufficiently admire this wonderful and incomprehensible huge frame of God’s work put before our senses! We may easily consider what little portion of God’s frame our little corruptible world is, but never can we sufficiently consider that fixed realm garnished with lights innumerable and reaching up in spherical altitude without end! GREENE: As I was saying — DIGGES: And this may well be thought of us to be the glorious court of the great God, whose unsearchable works invisible, we partly by these his visible, conjecture! To whose infinite power and majesty, such an infinite place, surmounting all other both in quantity and quality, only is convenient! GREENE: As I was saying, a galaxy that looks just like the Milky Way, with a solar system that’s the spitting image of ours, with a planet that’s a dead ringer for earth, with a house that’s indistinguishable from yours, inhabited by someone who looks just like you, who is right now watching this very discussion and imagining you, in a distant galaxy, just hearing the end of this sentence. DIGGES: Oh, this cannot be. LOCHER: Oh, it certainly can be, if all is part of an infinitude. Please continue, Mr. Greene. GREENE: Thank you, Johann. And there’s not just one such copy, there are infinitely many. In some, your doppelgänger is now hearing this sentence, along with you. In others, he or she has skipped ahead in the video, or feels in need of a snack and has hit pause. In others still, he or she has, well, a less than felicitous disposition and is someone you’d rather not meet in a dark alley. Thomas, you are not alone in whatever reaction you are now having to this view of reality. There are many perfect copies of you out there, feeling exactly the same way. And there’s no way to say which is really you. All versions are physically and hence mentally identical. LANSBERGEN: They would not have the same soul. GREENE: I remain open to the possibility of souls, but I have never encountered any evidence to support it. RICCIOLI (aside to LOCHER): Was this man not fully educated? Has he no access to books? GREENE: Excuse me? RICCIOLI: A matter for later. Continue. GREENE: The position that makes the most sense to me is that one’s physical and mental characteristics are nothing but a manifestation of how the particles in one’s body are arranged. Specify the particle arrangement and you have specified everything. Look, most of us wouldn’t expect worlds to repeat; most of us wouldn’t expect, every so often, to encounter versions of ourselves, our friends, our families. But if we could journey sufficiently far, that’s what we would find. LOCHER: But, Mr. Greene, this assertion is predicated on an infinite multiverse, yes? GREENE: Yes. LOCHER: I have shown in my Disquisitions that a physical infinitude cannot exist. Do you disagree with my reasoning there? (A pause.) KOYRÉ: It would seem none of them has ever so much as looked at your book. They just know it because they read Galileo. LOCHER: Well, a physical infinitude cannot exist. DIGGES: The power and majesty of God are infinite. For him an infinite place is fitting. LANSBERGEN: God may bring about anything he will. God made the stars impossibly giant — far excelling the sun, as Mr. Digges has said — and unimaginably distant. Through such immensity God is more correctly perceived to be immense, even infinite. And also more correctly perceived is that light in which He dwells! For if the light of one sun may be so excellent that the eyes cannot view it without injury, how much stronger will be the light of the so many and so much brighter Bodies which are gathered together in the starry heaven? How right was the Apostle to say God dwells in unapproachable light. For if the splendor of the stars — the veritable Atrium of the Divine Palace — may be so illustrious, how strong and unapproachable will be the radiance of the Habitacle of the Divine Majesty itself? LOCHER: God is not a physical infinitude. A physical infinitude cannot exist, or at least is contrary to mathematical reasoning and therefore beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry. In my Mathematical Disquisitions I have illustrated the mathematical contradictions inherent in such an infinitude. GREENE: Hmmm. Multiverse proposals rely on a belief that mathematics is tightly stitched into the fabric of reality. They arise because we assume that mathematical theorizing can guide us toward hidden truths. Only time will tell if this assumption takes the underlying mathematical theories too seriously, or perhaps not seriously enough. LOCHER: Both too seriously and not seriously enough. Let me illustrate four cases of consequences of Lucretius’s idea of a multiverse, regarding technology, natural ability, physics, and catastrophe. The basic idea here is that within an infinitude, whatever can happen, must happen, and must happen infinitely often. Atoms can only be arranged in so many ways, so it is possible for there to be exact copies of you and your family members out there in the multiverse, and therefore there are exact copies, and infinitely many, if I follow Mr. Greene correctly. And, Mr. Greene, you said earlier that there are also infinitely many inexact copies of you out there — those who skip ahead, those in need of snacks, and those you would rather not meet in a dark alley, correct? GREENE: Yes... LOCHER: Let us consider the inexact copies a bit more. How inexact can they be? As inexact as the laws of physics will allow, no? These inexact copies will be the subject of my four specific cases. First, consider one of those inexact copies of you that you would rather not meet in a dark alley. You are all intelligent men. Is there no probability that a sinister copy of you might be able to develop some technology that enables him to conquer the world? Such as, for example, robot dinosaurs (I’ve been doing some reading on robots and dinosaurs, you know — catching up on the time in which we seem to find ourselves, so to speak). Can we think of any reason why a sinister copy of yourself is prohibited by the laws of physics from building an army of robot dinosaurs and conquering his world? RICCIOLI (wryly): Would this be before or after my sinister copy had opted for the Dominican order? LOCHER: Of course this is highly improbable, but if it is possible that a sinister copy of you could build an army of robot dinosaurs and conquer his world (and there does not seem to be anything in the laws of physics to make that impossible), then it must happen, and infinitely often. Yes, in the infinite multiverse, there is a sinister you, ruling the world through robot dinosaurs! Infinitely many. How cool is that? Of course, in some universes, sinister you has run into a difficulty: a benevolent genius who has created another army of robot dinosaurs to battle you and your army. You might have thought that battles between armies of mechanical monsters were the stuff of pure fantasy, but no! In an infinite multiverse they must be reality. TEGMARK: Yes, infinitely many copies of you far away in our infinite space, obtaining each physically possible outcome. LOCHER: Second, while each of you is an intelligent man, might there not be an inexact copy of you who is more intelligent than you? Of course. Well then, how much more intelligent? How high can your IQ go in these inexact copies? Where is the limit to your IQ allowed by the laws of physics across the possible universes within an infinite multiverse? Moving beyond IQ, where is the limit to your strength? To your longevity? To your beauty? Might not one of those inexact copies of you be so brilliant, so strong, so long-lived, and so stunningly handsome as to be a veritable god? To be Thor? Is not Thor-you also a reality in an infinite multiverse? In fact, must there not be a full pantheon of gods and goddesses? And, granted that “the gods” must exist, some of whom are as brilliant, strong, long-lived, beautiful, and powerful as the laws of physics allow across infinite universes, should we consider building temples and offering sacrifices? Should we root for and seek to ally ourselves with the good gods against the inevitable bad ones? LANSBERGEN: Have you joined our heathen poet?! LOCHER: Of course not — I studied under Jesuits. But a pantheon of “gods” seems an inevitable consequence of a multiverse. LUCRETIUS: What breast recoils not with the dread of gods like these? LOCHER: Let’s not get too distracted here by the gods. My third case: Might there not be an inexact copy of you who experiences a remarkable string of possible but unlikely events? For example, a you who has always won every lottery ticket or game of chance he has played? Or, a you for whom heat has always happened to flow from cold objects to hot objects? As I understand from my reading, the flow of heat is a function of strong chance, not of physical necessity. Just as it is possible, but most unlikely, to shuffle a deck of cards and find that the shuffle results in a deck arranged Ace-to-King by suits (although this, too, must happen infinitely often in an infinite multiverse), it is possible, but even more unlikely, for a hot cup of coffee to absorb heat from the surrounding cooler air, thus growing warmer while the air cools (but again, even this must happen infinitely often in an infinite multiverse). Fourth, might there not be an inexact copy of you who is experiencing a catastrophe of some sort right now? A tornado? A tremendous volcanic explosion? An asteroid hit? A nearby supernova? Are there not, out there in the infinitude, copies of you experiencing every catastrophe possible? Has not every possible catastrophe always been occurring at some point in the multiverse? And, as with IQ, exactly how destructive of a catastrophe is possible, according to the laws of physics across the possible universes within an infinite multiverse? There must be quite the variety of catastrophes, many entirely beyond imagination, yet it seems that there is a limit on catastrophes. There is one catastrophe that is actually not possible. The catastrophe that is not possible is that catastrophe that actually destroys the multiverse. We are here, after all. Apparently the infinite multiverse cannot be destroyed, even by an infinitude of catastrophes.
TEGMARK: I don’t think that there’s anything truly infinite in our physical world. DIGGES: The power of God is infinite. RICCIOLI: No one can deny the power of God. Nevertheless, some ideas, while perhaps we cannot say they are absolutely impossible, nevertheless fail to satisfy the prudent. LOCHER: And we should look for alternatives to those ideas. Mr. Lansbergen, you once explicitly invoked the infinitude of God to solve the problem the Copernican theory had with all stars being so giant as to dwarf the sun. The giant stars were, you said, God’s army of star-warriors. RICCIOLI: Truly an idea that fails to satisfy the prudent. LANSBERGEN: Isaiah 40:26: “Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these: He leads out their army and numbers them, calling them all by name.” RICCIOLI: And what is the sun, then, if you invoke Holy Writ to justify your turning every last star into a behemoth that dwarfs it, just to fix the scientific absurdities that arise from Copernicus’s bogus theory? Does not the Psalmist describe the sun as — LOCHER: Fr. Riccioli, the Copernican theory is not bogus. (pause, Riccioli clearly taken aback) RICCIOLI: I beg your pardon, Johann. You yourself supported Tycho in your Disquisitions (I read some of it, Mr. Koyré). You stated the problem of star sizes as elegantly as anyone. LOCHER: Yes, Father, but that is part of my point with Mr. Lansbergen. For as I have since learned, the measured sizes of the stars turned out to be spurious, a phenomenon of light. RICCIOLI: Horrocks. DIGGES: Excuse me? RICCIOLI: Jeremiah Horrocks. He observed the moon passing in front of stars. Decades after Horrocks died, Hevelius published his observations. I read that book. The stars disappeared suddenly — too rapidly for any measured size. LANSBERGEN: Which means they are not giant. LOCHER: Right. They are greater or lesser suns, nothing more — apparently most stars are actually lesser than the sun. My point, Mr. Lansbergen, is that you appealed to the might of God — to the infinite — to something really cool — to explain a scientific problem. That problem turned out to be simple and basic and boring, namely that there was something yet to be learned about the nature of light and telescopes. RICCIOLI: Lansbergen was hardly alone among Copernicans in that. LOCHER: And the thing is, Mr. Lansgbergen’s star-warriors were fascinating to think about — they were cool — in the same way as are doppelgängers and the multiverse. What I say — my whole point here — is that our famed poet’s multiverse is of a piece with Mr. Lansbergen’s going to infinitudes to answer a scientific question. Are star-warriors any more removed from reason than the infinite multiverse with its robot dinosaurs? Is anything more removed from reason? Would not just one finite universe, even if we must invoke heathen magic to explain its existence, be more reasonable than the infinitude, the robot dinosaurs, and so on? And on a more practical level, it seems that among those people to whom Mr. Greene refers, those who are watching our discussion, there is a fascination with extraterrestrial beings living on the moon — RICCIOLI: No men dwell on the moon! LOCHER: — and it is supposed by some of those people that astronomers know of these beings and yet hide the fact! How could anyone convince the populace that such an idea is utterly fantastical when at the same time doppelgängers and the multiverse feature in real scientific discussion? Especially when both moon beings and doppelgängers are cool? Would not the sense of the populace regarding science be better if there were more emphasis on the basics of science, and on its problems and limits, and less on the doppelgängers? TEGMARK: We will ultimately discover some mathematical description of the Universe which is infinity-free and find that all this infinite math that we’re using today is just a really convenient approximation. LOCHER: So that infinities and doppelgängers will go the way of the star-warriors!
This marks the end of the transcript. I cannot imagine how this video was made, but I offer as a hypothesis* that within an infinite multiverse there can be found many doppelgängers of Locher, Lansbergen, and so forth, and likewise there can be found a civilization with the technological ability to travel, perhaps within a Quilted Multiverse through wormholes or other means, perhaps between other multiverses by other means, so as to bring these men together for a discussion. But even such technology must have its glitches, which is why I cannot find the video any more.
*An alternative hypothesis is that I succumbed to the urge to try out a little silliness on this blog, and that much of the content of this post is owed to my clever younger son and to my clever wife (whose names I omit, lest search engines forever connect them to “army of robot dinosaurs”)—and that the idea that a multiverse necessitates both robot dinosaurs and a pantheon of Norse-style gods is Younger Son’s, and that Wife remarked that the multiverse made the Copernican “giant-stars-as-palace-or-warriors-of-God” idea seem tame by comparison. Regardless of which hypothesis you prefer, it seems that the comments of these doppelgängers have much in common with the writings of Locher, Lansbergen, etc., mostly as found in Setting Aside All Authority. Exceptions are the Greene doppelgänger, whose comments seem similar to what can be found in the book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (pages 8-10, 34, 62, 321) by our universe’s Brian Greene; the Lucretius doppelgänger, whose comments seem to echo On the Nature of Things (II, 1055-1080; V, 1245); the Tegmark doppelgänger, whose comments do seem to echo comments by Tegmark that appear on the web; and the Koyré doppelgänger, “A Documentary History of the Problem of Fall [etc.]” (p. 331). Doppelgänger Locher’s comments, on the other hand, are not a clear echo of any known existing work; in particular, our universe’s Johann Georg Locher makes no reference to armies of robot dinosaurs in his Disquisitions of 1614.
Once, at the beginning of a semester, on the second meeting of an Astronomy 101 class, one of my students piped up with a comment. She said that when she had told a certain person (her grandmother, if I recall correctly) that she would be taking an astronomy class, that person had responded by saying that astronomy in particular and science in general was the stuff of devil-worshipers.
My student thus offered the class a wonderful comment. She was seeking from the outset of class to engage the material, her professor, and her fellow students with a very honest comment, expressing honest fears (her grandmother’s, and perhaps hers, too). Her comment reflected a sentiment that is not uncommon among students taking science classes—a fear that there is something about science that is contrary to their religion, and in that way there is something about science that is the work of the devil. (This view is not limited to grandmothers of Kentucky students: Jocelyn Bell Burnell, winner of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her work in the discovery of pulsars, writes in her 2013 book A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist also be Religious? of encountering a certain attitude that people have, an attitude that dismisses and ignores “mainstream, rational scientific explanation and replaces it with a mystery, which apparently only those in league with the devil would wish to question.”) Few students speak up so boldly, however, which is unfortunate—I do not want to lose these students, and when they speak up they create an opportunity for discussion and engagement.
O Reader of The Catholic Astronomer, when you think of a religion-science conflict such as these students fear, what comes to your mind? Do you think of the Big Bang theory and a universe that is 14 billion years old, versus the scripturally-based calculations made by the fourth-century Rabbi Hillel II that put the age of the universe at a little less than 6,000 years? (Right now it is the year 5779 as reckoned on the Jewish calendar—5,779 years since Adam and Eve.) Or perhaps what comes to your mind is the description in Genesis 1:27 of Adam and Eve being formed by God on the sixth day of creation, versus human beings evolving from lower life forms over a vast span of time.
Those are the sorts of things that my student’s grandmother might well have had in mind. They are the usual talking points when the subject is science and religion. At any rate, I am quite sure that what has not come to your mind, O Reader, and what my student’s grandmother did not have in mind, was the moons of Jupiter.
What do the moons of Jupiter have to do with any of this? In the seventeenth century the moons of Jupiter, which either Galileo or Simon Marius first discovered in 1609, were the subject of careful study. They were of great practical value, because they could serve as a sort of world-wide clock. In the seventeenth century, clock technology had not advanced to the point where a clock could be moved from one place to another and still keep time. No clock could keep accurate time when carried aboard ship or carriage. This made it very difficult to synchronize clocks between one place and another. If you want to determine your position on the Earth using the stars, you need to know what the time is at your location, because of course the stars that are visible are continually wheeling overhead, changing with the time of night. Not knowing time at different locations created all sorts of problems for astronomy, surveying, map-making, and navigation. In the case of navigation, this was a matter of life and death and economics, for miscalculation of position could and did result in terrible shipwrecks. Jupiter’s moons, wheeling regularly about Jupiter, could serve as a universal clock, visible from all points on Earth.
Bernard le Bouyer de Fontenelle (1657–1757) wrote in 1740:
Were there no other use of astronomy than that drawn from Jupiter’s satellites, it would justify well enough these huge calculations, these diligent and scrupulous observations, this large ensemble of instruments built with so much care; [and] this superb building [the Paris Observatory] raised for our science.
This intense focus on the Jovian moons led to an important discovery. Frances Willmoth, in a paper on this discovery writes,
In 1671 the young Danish astronomer Ole Römer assisted his mentor Erasmus Bartholin and the French astronomer Jean Picard in an important project employing observations of the satellites of Jupiter, following a method set out in Giovanni Domenico Cassini’s recently published work [on the Jovian moons]. The group travelled to the island of Hven, the one-time site of Tycho Brahe’s observatory Uraniborg, with the aim of establishing its geographical coordinates—especially longitude—with the greatest possible accuracy; the long series of observations formerly made there by Tycho could then be adapted to the meridian of Paris and put to effective use. Observing Jupiter’s satellites was chosen as the most convenient means available of ﬁnding longitude; the observations made on Hven were eventually to be compared with observations made simultaneously in Paris and Copenhagen. The expedition was not only a technical success, but led to Picard persuading Römer to return to Paris with him and join the staff of the new Paris Observatory.
But there was something weird in the data. The observed motions of the moons seemed to have some slight dependence on the distance between the Earth and Jupiter. Römer offered a suggestion for why this might be. Wilmoth writes:
On 22 November 1676 he [Römer] presented a paper to the Académie des Sciences claiming that the newly-discerned irregularity in the ﬁrst satellite’s motion was explained by light having a ﬁnite speed and that it provided a basis for calculating that speed. He claimed conﬁrmation from an observation made on 9 November, in which the timing of an eclipse of the satellite [the moon Io] was found to match that predicted in accordance with his theory, differing by 10 minutes from the time that would otherwise have been expected. He deduced that light would take 22 minutes to cross the whole diameter of the earth’s orbit, thus 11 to pass from the sun to the earth.
The observations of Jupiter’s satellites made by the Academy from 1670 to 1675 lead to the discovery in their motion of an inequality not previously known.... M. Cassini and M. Roëmer, then a member of the Academy, after scrutinizing this anomaly, found that it depended of the distance of Jupiter from the Earth.... A very ingenious conjecture on the cause of this inequality first came to the mind of the two astronomers. They imagined that the motion of light was not instantaneous as all previous philosophers believed, but that it took some time to spread....
Römer’s idea has withstood the test of time. Today we know that light takes 8.3 minutes to pass from the sun to the earth, not 11 minutes—but Römer’s results were not too bad for a first estimate. However, the discovery that light has a speed, that it is “not instantaneous as all previous philosophers believed” and instead requires some minutes to pass from the sun to the earth, is a discovery that has consequences.
Consider the description from Genesis 1:14-19 of the fourth day of creation:
And God said: Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years: To shine in the firmament of heaven, and to give light upon the earth. And it was so done. And God made two great lights: a greater light to rule the day; and a lesser light to rule the night: and the stars. And he set them in the firmament of heaven to shine upon the earth. And to rule the day and the night, and to divide the light and the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And the evening and morning were the fourth day.
If light traveled instantaneously, “as all previous philosophers believed”, then this is all very straightforward: God created the stars on the fourth day, their light reached Earth instantly, and they were visible in the night sky that evening. But thanks to astronomers and their efforts to improve timekeeping, surveying, and navigation by means of the Jovian moons, we know light has a finite speed. In fact it takes years for light to travel to Earth from even the nearest stars. This suggests that when God created the stars on the fourth day, they were not visible in the night sky that evening, and they would not be visible in the night sky until years later. Then they would show up one at a time, over a period of more than a thousand years: the star Sirius would show up after 9 years, Arcturus after 37 years, Rigel after more than 860 years, and Deneb after more than 2,600 years! The Andromeda Galaxy, which is also there in the night sky, visible to the naked eye, is so far away that the light from it requires 2,000,000 years to reach Earth—so it would not be visible in the night sky until 2,000,000 years after creation. But Genesis says God set the stars in the dome of the sky, to give light upon the Earth, on the fourth day, and they were good. That seems to say the stars were visible on the evening of the fourth day.
And that means that by the evening of the fourth day the universe appeared, to all scientific measure, to be old—over 2,600 years old based on Deneb, and over 2,000,000 years old based on the Andromeda Galaxy. Thus, according to the Jovian moons and a plain reading of Genesis, God created the universe in mature form, just as God created Adam and Eve in mature form. Transport an unwitting astronomer, with all the tools of modern science, to the Garden of Eden on the seventh day, and that astronomer would determine the universe to be millions of years old (at minimum), based on looking at the sky; and would determine Adam and Eve to be many years old based on looking at them. It stands to reason that our unwitting astronomer—in looking carefully and scientifically upon the sky that God just made and declared good, and upon the man and the woman that God just made and declared good—is not doing the work of the devil in determining these ages, even though that astronomer’s measurements contradict Genesis (because, according to Genesis, neither stars, man, nor woman are even one week old). Ole Römer did not look carefully and scientifically upon Jupiter with the devilish intent that his action might have an impact on how we read Genesis. Ole Römer just looked.
My student went on to be a cheerful, positive, and enthusiastic contributor to Astronomy 101. She did well in the class. I believe she came to understand something about how science works, and why astronomers say the universe is 14 billion years old (although I suspect her own belief nevertheless aligns more with Rabbi Hillel). I like to think that at some point she told her grandmother that astronomy was not the stuff of devil-worshippers, and that her grandmother listened, and that a few less people now think that there is something about science that is contrary to religion.
Readers who have been following The Catholic Astronomer for a while may recall a post from 2017 about Dang Nguyen and his efforts to photograph the August 2017 total solar eclipse (click here for that post). Nguyen is a student at my college (Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky), in the Communication Arts Technology program (a very cool program—their students win awards on a regular basis), studying photography. Well during the January 2019 total lunar eclipse, he got out the camera and went to work again. Check out the photos below!
I was surfing around last month through some of the Vatican Observatory’s different on-line presences when I came upon some photos from the V.O.’s 1999 Summer School. The two photos below especially caught my eye. The woman wearing the yellow sash looked vaguely familiar. And there was a caption that identified her as “Mercedes Richards”. When I was in graduate school at the University of Virginia, one of the astronomers there was named Mercedes Richards. Could this be the same person? How many people named Mercedes Richards are going to be connected to the world of astronomy, anyway?
It turns out that the woman at the 1999 summer school was indeed the same Mercedes Richards who was the astronomer at the University of Virginia. Regrettably, Richards passed away three years ago tomorrow. Her obituary is available from several sources. Most versions of the obituary specifically note her “fond memories” of her time “in 1999 at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo”. They also note that her memorial service was “held as a Memorial Meeting for Worship, in the Quaker tradition, to reflect Mercedes’ Quaker upbringing”. I had only recently finished writing a post for The Catholic Astronomer on the Quaker astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell when I found the photos of Richards at the V.O., so it seemed appropriate to write a post about Richards, a Quaker astronomer who had fond memories of Castel Gandolfo.
I did not know Mercedes Richards personally, but she was someone I might say “hello” to in the hallways of the University of Virginia astronomy department. She probably did not even know my name, as I was a lowly graduate student, and she was a busy new professor. She was on the faculty at Virginia from the late 1980’s through the early 2000’s. She then joined the faculty at Penn State, and was there for the rest of her career. In an interview she gave for a profile that Penn State did on her in 2009, she described taking an interest in astronomy at an early age:
I made a decision 'round about 6th grade or so that I wanted to be an astronomer.... The stars in Jamaica [Richards was from Jamaica] are really, really beautiful. My father and I would just sit outside and talk about life and philosophy under the canopy of the skies. More than anything else I wanted to understand what was going on. Why do stars shine?
Indeed, Richards’ area of research turned out to be stellar astronomy: she studied the interactions of binary stars—pairs of stars that orbit one another. According to the Penn State profile, her father encouraged her interest in the natural world in other ways, too, such as taking her to a local botanical garden early in the morning:
In the early morning quiet, father and daughter sat in awe of the nature around them (“It was like being in a place of worship”), and her father taught her to identify the nuanced varieties of plant species.
The profile also reports that one of her friends at St. Hugh’s High School in Jamaica wrote in her school yearbook, “Mad Mercy! Her ambition is to obtain a Ph.D. in Astronomy!” Richards did obtain that doctorate in astronomy, and also got married and became the mother of two daughters. Over the course of her career she was often honored for her work in astronomy.
She was also a person of active faith. The May 2016 issue of Friendly Connections, the newsletter of the State College (Pennsylvania) Friends Meeting (Quakers) features a lengthy obituary that notes that—
Mercedes Richards was a Quaker presence.... A birthright Quaker, Mercedes did extensive social work as a member of the Friends Meetings in Kingston (Jamaica), Toronto (Canada), and Charlottesville [Virginia]. In Kingston, she and her family were regular visitors to the children’s hospitals, bringing clothes and meals and good cheer. In Toronto, Mercedes was active in the Meeting’s First Day School, she served as Coordinator for three terms of the school curriculum, and she visited prisons in Ontario during her participation in the Meeting’s prison visitation program. In Charlottesville, she served on the marriage guidance committee and other committees. After the family moved to State College [Pennsylvania], Mercedes transferred her membership to State College Friends Meeting. Mercedes was a regular attender at Meeting and a faithful contributor to the local food bank.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Mercedes Richards are enough that it would seem the Quakers have a knack for begetting astronomers!
Back in September, Deirdre Kelleghan wrote a post on Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who had just been honored with a big award, the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, in honor of her role in the discovery of pulsars in 1967. The Royal Society, of which Burnell is a member, calls the discovery of pulsars “one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century”. The Breakthrough Prize is not just a nice piece of paper and a handshake—recipients receive $3 million!
Burnell donated her prize money to the Institute of Physics in the UK. The money will go toward scholarships for underrepresented people in physics. Burnell told the BBC, “I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge. I was both female but also from the northwest of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English,” she said. “So I have this hunch that minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing. In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.”
Burnell, like Kelleghan, is from Ireland. She has appeared in a few other Catholic Astronomer posts: one post by Br. Guy Consolmagno on Pluto (Burnell managed the meeting when the IAU declared Pluto a dwarf planet), and two different posts by Brenda Frye on pulsars and degenerate stars.
Well, guess what? Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a person of strong faith. She is an active Quaker. And in 2013 she wrote a short book about her faith and astronomy. The title of book is A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist also be Religious? This book is featured on the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science pages—click here to take a look at it. The full text of the book is freely available. And the book is short and easy to read. Give it a read.
This past September the journal Nature reported on how a long-lost letter of Galileo has been recently found by a science historian at the University of Bergamo, Salvatore Ricciardo. And Nature said Galileo lied. Lied? So what was the letter, and what was he lying about?
Before we get to the lying, let us consider the situation surrounding the letter (some of this will borrow material from an earlier post). The story gets started in about 1608, with the invention of the telescope. Copernicus’s book about his heliocentric theory (saying the Earth circles around the sun and revolves on its own axis), a book entitled De Revolutionibus, had been published in 1543; seven decades had passed with no great interest in that book from outside the world of science. But the telescope and the discoveries Galileo made using it—like the phases of Venus, which demonstrated that Venus must circle the sun, or the moons of Jupiter, which showed that celestial bodies could circle other celestial bodies—had made astronomy into something that was on the minds of people who probably would not have had astronomy on their minds otherwise.
Some such people were the powerful de’ Medici family of Tuscany. In December of 1613 Fr. Benedetto Castelli, a mathematics professor and one of Galileo’s friends and followers, had breakfast with the de’ Medicis. It was a Thursday, December 12 probably. Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, the ruler of Tuscany, asked Castelli if he had a telescope. Castelli said that he did and that in fact the night before he had been observing Jupiter with its “Medicean planets” (the moons, so-named by Galileo). The mother of the Grand Duke, Her Most Serene Ladyship Christina of Lorraine, remarked, apparently to herself, that the “Medicean planets” had better be real and not an artefact of the telescope.
The Grand Duke asked another professor who was at the breakfast, Cosimo Boscaglia, about this. Boscaglia answered that the Jovian moons were real, as were all of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries. However, Boscaglia made the point to Her Ladyship that the Earth did not move, and that the Bible stood contrary to the idea of its motion.
After the breakfast, the de’ Medicis summoned Castelli back, and Her Most Serene Ladyship Christina ended up arguing against Castelli, citing the Bible against any motion of the Earth. Castelli, who felt that Her Ladyship was challenging him largely to hear what he had to say, stood his ground despite being seriously intimidated by debating among the rich and the powerful. The Grand Duke and his wife sided with Castelli—the younger de’ Medici generation against the older.
On December 14, a Saturday, Castelli wrote a letter to Galileo about all this (this letter still exists, which is how we know what happened at the breakfast). Galileo responded with a letter on December 21, the next Saturday, congratulating him. This December 21 letter is the letter Nature has discussed.
“What greater fortune can you wish,” wrote Galileo, “than to see their Highnesses themselves enjoying discussing with you, putting forth doubts, listening to your solutions, and finally remaining satisfied with your answers?” Just what all scientists want: to be listened to by rich and powerful people. No doubt he had in mind a grant! Then Galileo offered a rebuttal to Her Most Serene Ladyship’s Biblical objection to Earth’s motion. “Holy Scripture can never lie or err,” he wrote. Nevertheless, “its interpreters and expositors can sometimes err in various ways,” such as by limiting themselves to the literal meaning of its words. Then one would have to attribute to God things like regret, hate, and ignorance of future things (Galileo may have been thinking of passages such as Genesis 6:5-7, where God regrets making mankind, or Malachi 1:3, where God hates Esau and his descendants). Scripture is written to accommodate the understanding of common people, he said, so it would be imprudent “to oblige scriptural passages to have to maintain the truth of any physical conclusions whose contrary could ever be proved to us”.
The letter became popular among Galileo’s followers and was copied and circulated. By February of 1615 a Dominican friar named Nicolò Lorini filed a complaint with the Inquisition regarding the letter. Lorini, noting that the Dominicans were the “black and white hounds of the Holy Office”, complained about how the letter said that, when the question was about natural phenomena, Sacred Scripture had to take second position to philosophical or astronomical arguments. Galileo in fact said just this in the letter. Lorini also threw in some other hearsay complaints—how he heard it said that the Galileo gang spoke disrespectfully of the early church fathers, of St. Thomas Aquinas, and of Aristotle; and that “to appear clever they utter and spread a thousand impertinences around our whole city”, and so on. None of that is found in Galileo’s letter. Lorini said that he thought that Galileo’s posse were “men of goodwill and good Christians, but a little conceited and fixed in their opinions”.
But Lorini had accused Galileo of heresy before, in 1612, and had afterward written a note of apology. This new charge did not gain much traction, either. A consultant for the Inquisition found that, except for some bad-sounding choices of words, there was nothing questionable in the letter. Galileo’s name was cleared.
Now, before we talk about the lying and Galileo’s letter, we must talk about the science of the time, and what the letter was not about. The letter was not about telescopic discoveries. Remember Castelli and the de’ Medicis and Boscaglia? Boscaglia had said that the Jovian moons were real, as were all of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries. But he rejected Copernicus.
Boscaglia could do this because of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Brahe, who had died fifteen years earlier, had been the most prominent astronomer of the age. He had been lord of his own island, where he ran a huge astronomical research program with all the best instruments and all the best observers, all funded by the King of Denmark.
Brahe had been an anti-Copernican. Boscaglia could assert that all Galileo’s astronomical discoveries were real, and also assert that Earth did not move—he could have his cake and eat it too, so to speak—because Brahe, impressed with aspects of the Copernican system but rejecting the idea of Earth’s motion, had developed his own system. In Brahe’s geocentric system, the sun, moon, and stars circle the Earth. The planets circle the sun. The stars lie just beyond Saturn.
Brahe had calculated that, were the stars as distant as Copernicus had supposed—so that the Earth’s orbit would be nothing by comparison, producing no observable effects in the stars—then they would also have to be enormous in order to appear as large as they do in the sky (Brahe measured their apparent sizes). Every last star, even the smallest, would dwarf the sun. And that, Brahe said, was absurd.
By contrast, in Brahe’s system the stars were not so distant. In it, the sun, moon, and stars circled an immobile Earth while the planets circled the sun. The stars lay just beyond the planets, and, being not so distant, did not have to be so huge. In Brahe’s system, celestial bodies all fell into a consistent size range. To many astronomers, the monster stars required by the Copernican system were indeed absurd. Brahe’s system was, in their eyes, far more reasonable.
Galileo’s discoveries were all fully compatible with Brahe’s system. Anti-Copernicans like Boscaglia could accept Galileo’s discoveries like those phases of Venus that proved it to circle the sun, because in Brahe’s system Venus circled the sun, which then in turn circled an immobile Earth. In fact, some astronomers embraced the telescopic discoveries as providing proof that old ideas about how the universe works were right. For example, those illustrations of Venus and Jupiter seen earlier in this post were by Johann Georg Locher, who thought the telescope supported Tycho, and that it even supported the ancient epicycle theory of Ptolemy (Jupiter’s moons circling Jupiter proved the reality of epicycles, he said, and darned if that isn’t true in its own way). In Locher’s Jupiter illustration (above), note the sun circling Earth down in the lower right corner.
Locher was a fan of Galileo’s. He spoke highly of Galileo, a Copernican, while slamming on his fellow geocentrists, Brahe and Simon Marius (Marius is the astronomer who claimed to have independently discovered the Jovian moons, and who gave them the names we now use—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto). Galileo would later repay Locher’s support by portraying Locher as a clod and Locher’s book as stupid. As discussed elsewhere in this blog, Galileo could do some strange things.
And that brings us back to Galileo’s letter and to lying. Two versions of Galileo’s December 21 letter to Castelli exist in the historical record. That letter is not about science, but about Her Most Serene Ladyship’s Biblical objection to Earth’s motion and about interpreting the Bible. I have read the entire letter and I have seen the original Italian of both versions. The key differences between the two versions are shown below. The changes are both in sections where Galileo discusses why the Bible might not give a scientific description of natural phenomena. One version of the letter is more likely than the other to offend a reader who places a high value on the words of the Bible. Such a person is probably not going to like the description of the Bible ‘perverting’ its own dogmas, for example.
|Onde, sì come nella Scrittura si trovano molte proposizioni le quali, quanto al nudo senso delle parole, hanno aspetto diverso dal vero, ma son poste in cotal guisa per accomodarsi alI'incapacità del volgo....||So, since in Scripture there are many propositions which, based on the naked sense of the words, have a different aspect from the truth, but are placed in such a way to accommodate the incapacity of the commoners....|
|Onde, sicome nella Scrittura si trovono molte proposizioni false, quant' al nudo senso delle parole, ma porte in cotal guisa per accomodarsi all'incapacità del numerouso volgo....||So, in Scripture there are many false propositions, based on the naked sense of the words, but placed in such a way to accommodate the incapacity of the numerous commoners....|
|Anzi, se per questo solo rispetto, d'accomodarsi alla capacità de' popoli rozzi e indisciplinati, non s'è astenuta la Scrittura d'adombrare de' suoi principalissimi dogmi....||Indeed, if by this respect only, to accommodate the capacity of rough and undisciplined peoples, the Scripture did not abstain from overshadowing its principal dogmas....|
|Anzi, se per questo solo rispetto, d'accomodars'all'incapacità del popolo, non s' astenuta la Scrittura di pervertire de'suoi principalissimi dogmi….||Indeed, if by this respect only, to accommodating the incapacity of the peoples, the Scripture did not abstain from perverting its principal dogmas....|
Galileo always claimed that the original version of letter that he wrote was the more gently worded version—Version ‘1’ seen here—and that someone doctored a copy of the letter and sent it to the Inquisition to get him in trouble. In other words, Version ‘A’, according to Galileo, was a fake. He went through some trouble to convince people, and the Inquisition, of this. But now Nature has given us Version ‘A’ in Galileo’s own hand, with scratch-outs and such indicating changes to be made. Apparently, Galileo lied. In fact, he wrote Version ‘A’. To quote the editors of Nature,
Galileo, it now seems clear, doctored his original letter himself, to make the language less aggressive, as soon as he realized the trouble heading his way. This suggests that the editing was not the malign work of theologians trying to make a stronger case against him, as had been assumed by the nineteenth-century scholar Antonio Favaro...
—and, I would add, by people like me. For years I’ve been teaching my students about how poor Galileo was given the shaft by the dirty tricks crowd who altered his letter to get him into trouble. Now I have to change my textbook!
Let us note a few key points here.
First point: Galileo’s December 21, 1613 letter to Castelli was a letter about scripture, not science. The changes that Galileo made to the letter were in wording regarding scripture, not science.
Second: Galileo wrote the letter in response to the views of Her Most Serene Ladyship Christina of Lorraine, mother of Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, the ruler of Tuscany. He did not write the letter in response to some aspect of the official church. This is counter to, for example, what the editors of Nature have written:
...the letter sets down for the first time the scientist’s gripes with the Vatican’s doctrine on astronomy...
The editors of Nature are incorrect here.
Last: the science of all this was far from settled at this time. Remember that Her Most Serene Ladyship’s wingman Boscaglia said all the telescopic discoveries were true—he just said they did not show the Earth orbited the sun. He could point to Brahe to support what he was saying. And recall the general confusion of the time—the geocentrist Locher, supporting the heliocentrist Galileo and attacking the geocentrist Brahe, for example.
One additional thing to recall is that Galileo did not get in trouble at this time. Even though the Inquisition looked at the “more offensive” version of his letter, they found that, except for some bad-sounding choices of words (exactly the items Galileo tried to change), there was nothing questionable in the letter. But, unfortunately, astronomy, and specifically the Copernican system, was now on the minds of yet some more people who probably would not have had astronomy on their minds otherwise: members of the Roman bureaucracy, who now felt the need to weigh in on astronomy.
Thus, by March 3, 1616 the Inquisition in Rome had ordered Galileo to stop promoting the heliocentric theory; minutes from their February 25 meeting show that they were prepared to threaten him with jail if he did not comply (that threat was not needed—minutes from March 3 show that Galileo had agreed to comply). By March 5 the Congregation of the Index had declared heliocentrism to be a “false” theory that was “altogether contrary to scripture”. The Congregation’s declaration does not provide their reasoning on this, but we can speculate that they thought it was safe to say heliocentrism was “false” because Brahe’s geocentrism made more sense, and of course it was contrary to scripture because of passages that describe the sun as moving:
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises (Ecclesiastes 1:5, NRSV).
The Congregation moved to censor portions of De Revolutionibus. Galileo reported in a letter of March 6 that he was not mentioned in any declarations, that he would not have been involved at all had his enemies not dragged him into it, and that he handled the affair in a manner befitting a saint. In a letter of March 12 he reporting having a 45-minute audience with Pope Paul V, where he informed the pope about the “implacable malice” of his enemies, and in response the pope said to put his mind at ease and feel safe, because pope and others all held him in such regard that no one would be listening to slanderers.
Nevertheless, the “Galileo Affair” had been set in motion.
Let’s bet on that.
Is that not what science boils down to? Something that can be tested, proven? Like with a bet?
That ‘something’ might be: The sun will rise in the East tomorrow.
It might be more complex: The sun’s position at 8:45 A.M. tomorrow will be such that the sunlight passing through that window will fall upon this spot.
It might be quite a bit more complex: The sun’s light will be eclipsed by the moon on this date, starting at this time, and the eclipse will last this long.
But ultimately, you can make a bet on it: whether the sun will rise in the East, or whether its light shines on a certain spot, or whether the eclipse occurs as predicted. And the person who is foolish enough to bet against these things is going to be out some money. Early in each semester of my Astronomy 101 class at Jefferson Community & Technical College here in Louisville, Kentucky we inevitably talk about this, because at least some of my students have been taught that truth is relative—that we can have my truth and your truth:
No, we can’t, in fact, have that. If you say that your truth is that the sun will rise in the North tomorrow, and I say it will rise in the East (and we agree on the definition of North and East), then we can make a bet. And if we get up early and go to where we can see the sun rise, and take the rest of the class with us, then you will need to bring a lot of cash, because you will be buying everyone breakfast.
It takes very little time for the class to agree that there is not your truth and my truth regarding where the sun rises (and we can recognize that of course this does not apply across all human experience—for example, John might say the art of Vincent van Gogh is great, and Joe might truly believe John is wrong, and Jim might truly believe John is right). The class also quickly agrees that truth is not democratic: that even if we have a vote on where the sun rises, and 82% of the electorate votes that the sun indeed rises in the North—that does not mean the sun rises in the North. Of course, not everything in science is as sure a bet as where the sun will rise, but the fact that the class can get these issues out of the way so quickly, even despite cultural issues with the concepts of truth and science, shows that we are all scientists to some extent.
Of course plenty of people do not think of themselves as scientists. My wife used to tutor a logic class back in her graduate school days, and she met students who would say they could not do logic. But she would tell them that they could, and that in fact they did logic all the time:
You are here, after all. To come to a tutoring session requires logic, and measuring and other things that make science. To cross a street requires inference from past experience—a collection of data and calculations of a sort that let us estimate how wide the street is, how fast the cars are moving, our own acceleration and speed, and so forth.
Thus we are all scientists, to some extent. Only people who are delusional in the strong sense—who cannot recognize the sun rising in the East, or the car coming down the street—are truly not scientists. Such folks are likely to have a bad encounter with that car.
Some people can be quite scientific, who may not think of themselves as scientists at all. In places that sell cloth and sewing supplies I am always struck by the measuring tools that are for sale. In the tools display we see units of measurement, angles, circles, lines, Cartesian coordinate systems. There is more mathematics and measurement in such places than you will see almost anywhere else people commonly visit—all between the Hello Kitty polar fleece and the material for making silk flower arrangements. And by golly, if you do not make those measurements correctly and do not make those cuts precisely, and if you do not have a good model or pattern to base your work on in the first place, then that shirt you are working on will come out looking like a shapeless blob. You can bet money on that.
Sewing is not rocket science. It is not brain surgery. It is not nuclear engineering. But it is science to some extent. Crossing the street is not sewing, but it is also science to some extent.
This post is part of a collection of posts on the subject of who can do science (click here for the whole series). And the point of these posts is that science is an inclusive activity. Whether we sew, or build, or take care of sick people, or study the stars—and whether we praise God, or work as slaves, or are strangers in a strange land—we all do science, and we all understand what it is, and we all understand where the sun will rise tomorrow. Sometimes we get the impression that science is the business of The Scientists—you know, guys who look and think like this fellow at right. Sometimes the scientific world is not very inclusive, and reinforces that impression. But that impression is wrong. Science is the business of us all.
It is now the Epiphany (almost). In my last post (click here for it), just before Christmas, I discussed how the Star of Bethlehem as described in the second chapter of Matthew was no big, blazing beacon like is seen on Christmas cards. Rather, it was something only astro-nerds—that is, magi—would notice. The question next is, what was The Star?
In the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science pages you will find an entry for The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, an interesting 1999 book written by Michael R. Molnar of Rutgers University, and published by Rutgers University Press (click here). Molnar presents an interesting argument for the Star of Bethlehem being the planet Jupiter.
Molnar studied the astrology of the Greco-Roman world during the time of the Caesars. He argues that a particular celestial event—namely Jupiter being eclipsed by the moon while in the constellation of Aries the Ram, with the sun just to the east of Jupiter nearby and high in the sky as seen from Jerusalem—would have been seen by astrologers as a great portent relating to a king in the region of Herod’s kingdom. Molnar’s idea is no a simple thing to envision. Indeed, Molnar notes, in response to a passage of astrological material from Ptolemy regarding planets and regal births:
Such opaque and arcane writing could very well be a reason that people have advocated much simpler explanations for the Star of Bethlehem.
Interestingly, this “Star of Bethlehem” event could not be seen, because it occurred against a noonday sky as seen from Jerusalem. But astrologers would have known that the event was occurring, thanks to their calculations of the motions of the celestial bodies. Molnar argues that we have to think of the sky the way astrologers—magi—at the time would have thought of it. And those magi would have been excited about Jupiter rising out of the eastern sun, in a constellation connected with the region around Jerusalem, attended by moon, sun, and in fact all the other planets—even if none of it could be seen by a human observer.
Molnar also argues that Jupiter fits the language of the second chapter of Matthew:
After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
Jupiter, like all planets, moves among the other stars. Thanks to the motion of both Earth and Jupiter around the sun, we can see Jupiter move one way through the stars, then another. It can “go behind”, and can “go ahead”, of the other stars; it can “stop” among them.
Thus Molnar puts the date of the Star of Bethlehem at April 17, 6 B.C., when Jupiter was eclipsed by the moon in Aries, a constellation that astrologers associated with the region around Jerusalem, on the day when Jupiter was first rising out of the eastern sun. Thus the magi saw the star “in the east” or “at its rising”. By the time the magi had found Herod, Molnar supposes, Jupiter was visible in the evening sky. If we imagine that Jupiter was at one of its stopping points among the stars on the Epiphany, and if we imagine the magi leaving Jerusalem for Bethlehem in the evening (if travel around Jerusalem at night was safe, which seems questionable) then we can imagine the magi seeing Jupiter, stopped among the stars, gleaming in the southern sky, working its way toward Bethlehem (which is south of Jerusalem, but a little to the west) just as they were working their way toward Bethlehem, so that by the time they approached the town it was “stopped” and over the place, as seen from the Jerusalem road. That puts the Epiphany in late December of 6 B.C.
Dear Reader of The Catholic Astronomer: do not consider Molnar’s discussion, or any of what I have written here, as being in any way the definitive word on the Star of Bethlehem and the Epiphany. Molnar has proposed an interesting and plausible hypothesis that can be made to generally fit what is found in the Bible, that is all. No one is going to know if he “found The Star”. And other, better, ideas may yet be found. But, Molnar has shown that it is possible to identify, in a cool-headed, scientifically plausible manner that has generally been well received by scholars, an astronomical phenomenon that fits the description of the Star provided by Matthew. That’s a pretty fun thing, even if only from a cool-headed, scientifically detached point of view.