Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei transformed stargazing from religion to science when he aimed his first telescope into the night sky. In the process, he upended the notion that the entire universe revolved around little old Earth – which, to the Catholic Church, amounted to the highest blasphemy.
“Galileo’s first use of the telescope for astronomy marks the passage from ancient astronomy and astrology to modern scientific astronomy,” said Marco Cavaglia, assistant professor of physics at UM. “I can’t even imagine what life would be like if his work hadn’t been accepted. Maybe we’d still be in the dark ages.”
When Galileo died in 1642, he was blind and under house arrest for his heresy. But 2009 will be celebrated worldwide as the International Year of Astronomy, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Galileo using a telescope to view the stars. For its part, the UM Department of Physics and Astronomy is coordinating a whole slate of events designed to educate and enlighten.
“This is an effort of many people and institutions around the world,” Cavaglia said. “The most important part of IYA2009 is spreading astronomy to kids and people who would not usually be exposed to it. Education is a big part of it.”
Among the events:
• Assistant Professor of History Theresa Levitt, a specialist in the history or science, presented a public lecture titled “The Pope’s Best Friend: Galileo’s Startling Astronomy and Inadvertent Heresy,” on January 27.
• In collaboration with the Department of Music, internationally acclaimed composer/musician Andrea Centazzo performed his original work “Einstein’s Cosmic Messengers” – a multimedia show inspired by black holes and gravitational waves.
• March featured an exhibit of astronomical paintings at The University Museums.
• From April 2-5, “100 Hours of Astronomy” will allow enthusiasts to view live images from observatories around the globe via webcast. “People will be able to hop from one observatory to another and see what others are seeing,” Cavaglia said.
• A photography exhibit called “The World At Night” will showcase images of the sky taken at landmarks around the world, such as a moonrise over the Parthenon in Greece, or the Milky Way as seen from the Great Pyramids in Egypt.
• A series of after-school activities are scheduled for late spring, including open houses at Kennon Observatory on the Oxford Campus.
“If Galileo could see what we can do now, I think he’d be really amazed,” Cavaglia said. “He had a very simple instrument – something you could buy for less than $10 these days. Now, we can see almost to the end of the universe, so to speak. He would be impressed and happy.
“But more importantly, he changed how science was done,” Cavaglia continued. “Before Galileo, people wouldn’t even bother to check to see if something could be scientifically proven. But he introduced experiments and observations, and if experiments tell us something new, then we have to change our minds. I guess there would be no modern science without him.”