Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Man Who Saw For Us

It was a magical moment.

In a split second, Galileo became real to me. He moved and breathed. It happened on a Wednesday when I stumbled upon a small piece of paper behind a glass box in a corner of the Franklin Science Institute in Philadelphia. The paper looked like it had been torn from a book. On it, Galileo had painted the phases of the moon as he saw them in his telescope. They looked like early black and white photos, faded, but still oddly vivid, remarkably believable. I had just seen his telescope -- the actual one he had used for his work, the one he built himself. Our guide explained how he developed a technique of heating and bending glass which enabled him to create a lens that magnified an object 30 times, instead of the usual 2. This lens let him see the universe. These pictures of the moon showed me exactly what he saw in that lens on a particular set of nights.

He was punished for seeing it. The Church labeled his truth-telling as heresy. It didn't fit their doctrine. His observations confirmed that the planets revolved around the sun, rather than around the earth. Not only was this unacceptable to them, it was simply not possible; it was a lie. They moved quickly and decisively to ban his publications and silence his message.

What would he think if he could see the extreme anxiety with which the Italians brought his telescope to the Franklin Institute? Officials from the
Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza traveled with it and would not let anyone touch it or any of the other things from his life which all came in special, large boxes. The Italians set up the exhibit themselves and then stayed on site for a few days to watch as spectators wound their way through the artifacts. Rules are strict: no touching, no photos. So great was their concern that the exhibit almost didn't happen. The fact that Gallileo's things actually touched American soil is a tribute to the Franklin Institute's diplomacy and patience. For the Italians, this is a national treasure, Gallileo their national hero. What they have from his life is priceless and irreplaceable.

What would he think?

In an irony that is nearly too terrible to contemplate, after he published his famous
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, his life came full circle. He was forced by the Church to recant and placed under permanent house arrest. His daughters entered the same Church as nuns, because he could no longer provide for them and because, having been born out of wedlock, they were considered by the Church to be unmarriageable. After his public disgrace, his reputation destroyed, he found his sources of income stripped from him. The strain was devastating. He lost his health. Then he lost his sight.

This man who saw for us the universe in the night sky.

It was just a story to me, something from a history book, until I saw the moons he painted. Now I can't get him off my mind. How did he feel at the end of his life? Was he bitter? Did he have any idea what he had done for the rest of us? Did he realize that we would admire and remember him, that the truth would eventually find its way to us? I want to reach across the centuries and take his old hands in mine and thank him.

In the exhibit, around the corner from Galileo's moon phases, is a portrait of him when he was old. His eyes look away and upwards, as if he is seeing the night sky again -- although it's clear he must have been blind by that time. He is looking at worlds beyond our world, gazing upon the universe within. The Church leaders may have imprisoned his body in his house, but they could never imprison that mind. What he saw blazes like a comet across time and space, its light reaching out to you and to me. His truth lives, and it lives for us.

The Franklin Science Institute is hosting Galileo, the Medici, and the Age of Astronomy until September 7.

Their hands-on science museum is a great favorite for homeschoolers. It could be an interesting summer trip or a good way to kick off a unit study in the early fall.

You can check out what the institute offers at
their website.


  1. You ought to send this to them. I bet they'd publish it somewhere. It makes me want to drive to Philly!

  2. This was very interesting. And the Church just officially pardoned him in the last 20 years. Amazing.

    Galileo's been a favorite scientist in our house for many years, I think we will definitely be planning a trip. Thanks for sharing. kr


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