Sunday, January 11, 2009

The 2009 International Year of Astronomy: Galileo Rem

Primarily a commemoration of that fateful night back in 1609 when Galileo first used a telescope in astronomy, but has our contemporary society come a long way since the Inquisition?

By: Vanessa Uy

When Galileo turned his “primitive” telescope to the night sky on that fateful night back in 1609, he never expected in his wildest dreams the wondrous vistas he had opened which people at that time had hardly dreamed were there. Galileo found mountains on the Moon; he soon found out that Venus had Moon-like phases, which proved the planet’s Sun-centered orbit. And also the four “little stars” orbiting Jupiter, which were later named collectively as the “Galilean Satellites” in Galileo’s honor; the countless stars never before seen in the main band of the Milky Way, plus the Sunspots traversing the solar disk which made him deduce that the Sun rotates. With all these discoveries, in one fell swoop, the old, comforting idea of the planet Earth being the center of creation was doomed 400 years ago.

Armed with these findings, Galileo became a convinced Copernican – i.e. the Earth and the rest of the planet’s revolving around the Sun, unlike the Church accepted Earth-centered Ptolemaic system – which spurred him into a “crusade” to gain Church acceptance of the Copernican system. But the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church at that time proved unyielding and even threatened to unleash the might of the Inquisition on Galileo. Which eventually coerced him to admit “errors” in order to avoid torture - all proved to be in vain to still Galileo’s questioning mind and his faith in God.

Now 400 years after that fateful night when Galileo decided to use the relatively primitive telescopes of the time for stargazing, the 2009 International Year of Astronomy should – in my opinion – be dedicated to Galileo’s resolve in the face of the “evil” bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church. Science shouldn’t be undermined with established power politics, especially when the findings are not to the liking of the powers-that-be. Remember during the height of the Bush Administration when the American ultra-conservative Christian Right decided to make scientific data proving that global warming / climate change is real be labeled a hoax and be made part of their accepted Christian doctrine? Well, America’s ultra-conservative Christian Right almost got away with it because plans to wean-off our dependence on fossil fuels were backlogged for eight years in order for them to maintain their political and financial hegemony - at the expense of our planet’s environment.

Luckily in the nick of time, a more enlightened leader was elected as the new US president in the name of Barack Obama. Economic problems aside, 2009 might yet prove to be a good year for astronomy. Lest we forget what Galileo already experienced first-hand almost 400 years ago that science and politics really are very nasty bedfellows. Which sadly what got Giordano Bruno burned alive at the steak. Maybe the Inquisition is still alive in the 21st Century.

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