03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Galileo 400: A Brand New Sky!

January 10, 1610: Galileo abolishes Heaven. --Berhold Brecht.

Four hundred years ago, Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de' Galilei, turned his telescope to the heavens. As far as he knew, no one had done it before. (Although it appears that a certain Thomas Harriot, who also introduced the potato to Ireland, did it first, but he kept that information to himself so it doesn't count.)

On a cold winter's day Galileo looked at the planet Jupiter, and was shocked to observe that it didn't appear as a point of light, but rather a globe of sorts. There were hundreds of new starts that weren't possible to see with the naked eye, four of them in a straight line next to Jupiter.


So Galileo decided to give this enlarged world another look over in the following nights, only to discover that the stars next to it were moving! On January 10, 1610, he came to recognize that these stars were in fact tiny planets orbiting Jupiter!

Today, in the 21st Century, we're totally blasé about this sort of thing. But you've got to think about it in creationist terms. The Bible says that the sky is a firmament, a dome of sorts separating the waters above from the waters below. The world was at the bottom, a bubble of air in a giant snow globe with the sun and the moon and five strange stars called planets whizzing their way around the earth in the upper atmosphere, getting wet when it rained. The idea that Jupiter was the center of its own universe, so to speak was revolutionary!
Galileo Pictures, Images and Photos

So, unlike Harriot, he wrote to his friend Christoph Clau, who created the Gregorian calendar, and sent him a telescope (Galileo didn't invent it, a certain Hans Lippershey did, but he wasn't able to get a patent, and our hero was making a pretty good living manufacturing them). Clau, better known as Clavius, confirmed everything Galileo said, and soon, well, as they say, the rest is history.

That history includes the persecution by the Italian Inquisition, and his subsequent quasi-martyrdom under house arrest. It's something that children everywhere are taught in school, or at least they should. His is a tale of what happens when you treat allies in high places with arrogance and derision. Galileo's famous book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, has the foolish proponent of the geocentric universe theory mouth the words of the Pope, who recognized them and didn't really appreciate it.

The Vatican, which has been justly criticized for what it did for centuries, now has had a change of heart. Maybe they'll canonize him like they did that alleged witch Joan of Arc. I doubt it though.

Four hundred years ago, Galileo gave us the Universe, and we're better off for it.