The Starry Messenger

by |October 19, 2009

Galileo’s Wash Drawings of the Moon

Summer Ash, a current Frontiers of Science Fellow at Columbia College, takes a page out of Galileo’s book and looks towards the cosmos under the ever-enlightening lens of a telescope.

Read her ruminations on our night sky here:

The Starry Messenger

The universality of the sky was revealed to me last night.

It started simply enough. Dinner in the valley with my godparents, a typical Saturday evening in

August. Given the size of the valley and the small social circles, it’s common to run into several

friends and families at any given event, and this time was no different. The couples at the table

outside, the family at the table next to us and the one next to that, and the neighbors at the table

in the far corner, all known to my godparents and after tonight known to me as well. But one of

these introductions was to mean more than the others.

The house up the hill from my godparents belongs to a family who open their home to most of

the valley each year when they honor their patriarch. I have vague memories of attending these

fetes as a young child and sporadic ones as an adolescent, which came flooding back to me as I

walked into the house for this year’s celebration. This particular summer I had come to know two

of the three now full grown children in the family so I was especially excited to attend. In

between the cocktail chaos and the bustling buffet though, I never came across the third and

eldest daughter and her husband…until Saturday night.

As I am introduced to the husband I find myself volunteered and volunteering to set up a

telescope for the family, which the aforementioned patriarch has just purchased for their

mountain house. I worry a little to myself that my academic qualifications may not translate

directly into telescopic proficiency, but being an engineer in a former life and a tinkerer by birth,

I can’t wait to get my hands on the shiny new toy.

Late Sunday afternoon, I head up the hill to report for duty. Within an hour the hardware is

assembled, but due to a lack of batteries, we cannot test the AutoStar function which is where all

the fun is – once the telescope is calibrated to a location, it can automatically slew to any number

of celestial targets. Instead, I am made an offer that I cannot refuse: drinks and dinner on the

porch on a future and hopefully clear night in exchange for returning to help with the remaining

set-up. I return home and immediately look up the weather forecast; it’s my last week in the

valley and I pray that there will be at least one clear night. Tuesday jumps out at me. I check

multiple weather websites, and they corroborate the first – Tuesday looks perfect.

Tuesday morning I awake to blue skies and bright sunshine, just the kind of day that makes you

never want to leave the valley. As I am going about the online portion of my day, a friend tells

me to check out Google’s home page – it’s familiar logo is composed of telescopes in honor of

Galileo Galilei. Unbeknownst to me, it is exactly 400 years to the day after Galileo first unveiled

his telescope to Venetian lawmakers. His intention at the time may have been to sell the

instrument to merchants for use at sea or in trade, but I have no doubt he had already turned his

to the sky. Less than six months later, he would publish his first telescopic astronomical

observations in a brief treatise he titled Sidereus Nuncius, or Starry Messenger.

Now across time and space, from a stone patio on the side of a mountain, I find myself looking at

the very same sky that Galileo first explored, lo those many years ago. The telescope has been

calibrated and aligned and it is asking us to choose an object. The Milky Way brilliantly spills

across the sky directly overhead with the Summer Triangle practically at the zenith. The Big

Dipper is hiding behind the pine trees lining the driveway. An occasional shooting star flashes in

and out of view. Unanimously, the dinner party demands a closer look at the exceptionally bright

object rising in the southeast from behind the house: Jupiter. Upon acquiring this target, the

telescope reveals the exact picture that Galileo once set his sights on. His discovery of four small

satellites orbiting Jupiter was what prompted him to question the principles of Aristotelian

Cosmology that required the orbits of all heavenly bodies to be centered on the Earth.

The telescope we are using is not terribly more powerful than Galileo’s original one. And the sky

has only changed imperceptibly since his time. Standing there with my eye glued to the eyepiece

and Jupiter and its four Galilean Moons sliding across my field of view, I feel a sense of

connection to Galileo, the Earth, and the cosmos stronger than I’ve ever felt before. Contrary to

many people’s reaction to the vastness of space and time, I feel all the more special and

privileged to be a part of something universal, in all senses of the word.

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