Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thomas Harriet: The First to Use the Telescope in Astronomy?

There is now proof that an Englishman from Oxford named Thomas Harriet was the first to use the then newly invented telescope in stargazing a few months before Galileo. Will our schoolbooks be revised?

By: Vanessa Uy

In a debacle somewhat reminiscent of the late 1970’s debate on who were the first to release the first Punk single – The Sex Pistols or The Damned? - Has now invaded the world of astronomy. And the timing that even supermarket tabloids can only dream of, given that we are just starting the UN-declared International Year of Astronomy in honor of the Galileo being the first to use the then newly invented device called the telescope in astronomy on that fateful night in 1609. Will this story be the forever remembered as the bombshell of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy?

The recently discovered document – according to the BBC World report aired on January 14, 2009 proves that the Oxford gentleman-scientist named Thomas Harriet (or is it spelled Harriett?) had beat the Italian polymath named Galileo in being the first to use the then newly invented device called the telescope in stargazing / astronomy. The newly found document focuses on the detailed drawings and sketches used by Thomas Harriet in his attempt to map the mountains on the Moon and to record on what he saw on his telescope near the end of December 1608.

Being a gentleman of stature in 17th Century Oxford, Thomas Harriet probably procrastinated in taking steps to publish his recent findings because he has other more important tings to do. Or because it would take almost superhuman-like feats to publish such groundbreaking and radical scientific findings in an age almost 400 years before the invention of the Internet, never mind Blogging and Web 2.0. Given these preexisting challenges of publishing ones own extremely groundbreaking scientific discoveries during 17th Century Europe, it's easy for both Thomas Harriett and Galileo to be ignorant of each others findings even years after their own lifetimes. But first let us review the a piece of equipment that both of them used to advance the then fledgling science of astronomy - namely the telescope.

The telescope - according to most Europeans at that time - was the product of Dutch spectacle-makers. These Dutch spectacle-makers who had been grinding lenses from chunks of glass - probably since Medieval Times - did so without fully understanding quite how they worked. A few years after 1600, one of them, possibly a Dutch scientists named Hans Lippershey. Discovered by happy accident that two lenses of appropriate curvature, held the proper distance apart, makes distant objects look larger. Galileo was the first - as we know so far - to put the fascinating invention to serious work in astronomy. But was he really the only one who did it during that time?

Given that Galileo was the first to publish his findings, he established the principal claim. Which sadly also draws the attention of the Pan-European Inquisition and the 17th Century Vatican Police Apparatus to the detriment of Galileo’s future standing in the scientific community of 17th Century Italy.

Back to the mountains on the Moon issue, dispute was arising fast over who should take credit for these glorious new discoveries hitherto never seen before the telescope was pointed to the heavens. Even though Galileo was very much aware of the dilemma between the urge to publish his findings quickly, and the need for continued observations until he was certain of their accuracy. Galileo chose to publish his findings immediately, thus was forever credited for being the first one to use the telescope as an astronomical instrument. Even though a gentleman from Oxford, England named Thomas Harriet had beat him to it by several months.

1 comment:

Yoav said...

That particular report being aired on the BBC World News regarding the Oxford Astronomer / Gentleman Thomas Harriet (or is it spelled Harriett?) beat the Italian "polymath" Galileo in being the first to use the telescope - albeit the somewhat primitive refracting / lens-based system newly invented by the Dutch scientist Hans Lippershey - in stargazing / astronomy by a few weeks did stir up unfavorable comments from around the world. A friend of mine who happened to glance the BBC Radio 4 forum site during his searches on the Oxford astronomer Thomas Harriet on the Internet did reveal that the English are still hanging-on to their sense of "colonial superiority". To me, this is probably one of the biggest controversial topics to have emerged in the UN-promoted "2009 International Year of Astronomy" festivities.