The time was now approaching when Galileo was to make that mighty step in the advancement of human knowledge which followed on the application of the telescope to astronomy. As to how his idea of such an instrument originated, we had best let him tell us in his own words. The passage is given in a letter which he writes to his brother-in-law, Landucci.
"I write now because I have a piece of news for you, though whether you will be glad or sorry to hear it I cannot say; for I have now no hope of returning to my own country, though the occurrence which has destroyed that hope has had results both useful and honourable. You must know, then, that two months ago there was a report spread here that in Flanders some one had presented to Count Maurice of Nassau a glass manufactured in such a way as to make distant objects appear very near, so that a man at the distance of two miles could be clearly seen. This seemed to me so marvellous that I began to think about it. As it appeared to me to have a foundation in the Theory of Perspective, I set about contriving how to make it, and at length I found out, and have succeeded so well that the one I have made is far superior to the Dutch telescope. It was reported in Venice that I had made one, and a week since I was commanded to show it to his Serenity and to all the members of the senate, to their infinite amazement. Many gentlemen and senators, even the oldest, have ascended at various times the highest bell-towers in Venice to spy out ships at sea making sail for the mouth of the harbour, and have seen them clearly, though without my telescope they would have been invisible for more than two hours. The effect of this instrument is to show an object at a distance of say fifty miles, as if it were but five miles."
The remarkable properties of the telescope at once commanded universal attention among intellectual men. Galileo received applications from several quarters for his new instrument, of which it would seem that he manufactured a large number to be distributed as gifts to various illustrious personages.
But it was reserved for Galileo himself to make that application of the instrument to the celestial bodies by which its peculiar powers were to inaugurate the new era in astronomy. The first discovery that was made in this direction appears to have been connected with the number of the stars. Galileo saw to his amazement that through his little tube he could count ten times as many stars in the sky as his unaided eye could detect. Here was, indeed, a surprise. We are now so familiar with the elementary facts of astronomy that it is not always easy to realise how the heavens were interpreted by the observers in those ages prior to the invention of the telescope. We can hardly, indeed, suppose that Galileo, like the majority of those who ever thought of such matters, entertained the erroneous belief that the stars were on the surface of a sphere at equal distances from the observer. No one would be likely to have retained his belief in such a doctrine when he saw how the number of visible stars could be increased tenfold by means of Galileo's telescope. It would have been almost impossible to refuse to draw the inference that the stars thus brought into view were still more remote objects which the telescope was able to reveal, just in the same way as it showed certain ships to the astonished Venetians, when at the time these ships were beyond the reach of unaided vision.
Galileo's celestial discoveries now succeeded each other rapidly. That beautiful Milky Way, which has for ages been the object of admiration to all lovers of nature, never disclosed its true nature to the eye of man till the astronomer of Padua turned on it his magic tube. The splendid zone of silvery light was then displayed as star-dust scattered over the black background of the sky. It was observed that though the individual stars were too small to be seen severally without optical aid, yet such was their incredible number that the celestial radiance produced that luminosity with which every stargazer was so familiar.
But the greatest discovery made by the telescope in these early days, perhaps, indeed, the greatest discovery that the telescope has ever accomplished, was the detection of the system of four satellites revolving around the great planet Jupiter. This phenomenon was so wholly unexpected by Galileo that, at first, he could hardly believe his eyes. However, the reality of the existence of a system of four moons attending the great planet was soon established beyond all question. Numbers of great personages crowded to Galileo to see for themselves this beautiful miniature representing the sun with its system of revolving planets.
Of course there were, as usual, a few incredulous people who refused to believe the assertion that four more moving bodies had to be added to the planetary system. They scoffed at the notion; they said the satellites may have been in the telescope, but that they were not in the sky. One sceptical philosopher is reported to have affirmed, that even if he saw the moons of Jupiter himself he would not believe in them, as their existence was contrary to the principles of common-sense!
There can be no doubt that a special significance attached to the new discovery at this particular epoch in the history of science. It must be remembered that in those days the doctrine of Copernicus, declaring that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of the system, that the earth revolved on its axis once a day, and that it described a mighty circle round the sun once a year, had only recently been promulgated. This new view of the scheme of nature had been encountered with the most furious opposition. It may possibly have been that Galileo himself had not felt quite confident in the soundness of the Copernican theory, prior to the discovery of the satellites of Jupiter. But when a picture was there exhibited in which a number of relatively small globes were shown to be revolving around a single large globe in the centre, it seemed impossible not to feel that the beautiful spectacle so displayed was an emblem of the relations of the planets to the sun. It was thus made manifest to Galileo that the Copernican theory of the planetary system must be the true one. The momentous import of this opinion upon the future welfare of the great philosopher will presently appear.
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