Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Galileo's view of the sky

NASA photo of Halley Comet from 1986.

Emory celebrated Galileo’s birthday Feb. 15 with a talk by Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno.

“Because of light pollution, I suspect many of the undergraduates in this room have never seen the Milky Way, which is a real tragedy,” he said.

Consolmagno told of his own “soul-shaking experience” of seeing his first comet. He described the 1618 comet controversy, when Galileo asserted that comets were an optical illusion, and how he ridiculed a more accurate theory by Jesuit mathematician Orazio Grassi. The controversy was among the circumstances contributing to Galileo being put on trial by the Catholic Church, for championing the idea of a sun-centered solar system. He ended his life under house arrest.

“Both Galileo and Grassi reacted with deep passion to this comet, and both were guilty of seeing more of what they wanted to see than what was actually there,” Consolmagno said.

“Galileo was brilliant. He got so many things right that the things he got wrong stick out like sore thumbs,” he added. “Scientific truth is at best always incomplete. No one who wants to study comets today bothers to read Grassi or Galileo, because our understanding has come so much further. And a textbook on comets in 2410 will make our work today look pretty obsolete. At least, I hope so.”

Check out this hilarious video of Consolmagno's appearance on "The Colbert Report."
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Gold, Frankincense and Mars - Guy Consolmagno
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