By DAN DE SIMONE
Four hundred years after the publication of Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius” (“Starry Messenger”), a bibliographer, a literary scholar, a mathematical cartographer, an astrophysicist and two philosophers presented a stimulating program at the Library, commemorating this groundbreaking study of the heavens.
Using a telescope for the first time as an instrument of science, Galileo recorded his observations in 1610, describing the physical nature of the moon, the star formations of the Milky Way and the discovery of the moons of Jupiter.
The Rare Book Forum “Galileo’s Moons” was organized to celebrate the purchase of an extraordinary copy of the “Starry Messenger” by the Library of Congress, a work that had been on the Library’s desiderata list for decades.
Co-sponsored by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division and the Center for the Book, the Nov. 5 program was attended by nearly 150 Galileo enthusiasts, who witnessed the delivery of six original papers by a panel of experts from Princeton University, the University of Pittsburgh, Duke University, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Library of Congress.
The program was introduced by Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, who began by acknowledging Associate Librarian Deanna Marcum’s support for the division and the purchase of this rare book.
Paul Needham, head of the Scheide Library at Princeton, opened the program with a discussion of the printing history of Galileo’s book. He based his discussion on a “close physical examination” of many surviving copies of “Sidereus Nuncius,” looking for clues to the author’s involvement in the actual composition of the book. Needham made numerous references to the special nature of the Library of Congress copy, calling its acquisition a moment of “great national pride.” He focused on the size of this untrimmed copy and the original binding that protected the book. The Library of Congress copy was important to Needham because over time many of the copies he examined had been trimmed by bookbinders when repairing or rebinding the book. The result of rebinding left many copies incomplete: Some of the stars in the charts drawn by Galileo were trimmed away.
Eileen Reeves, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton, followed with a discussion suggesting that Galileo’s telescope may have been constructed based on designs of organ pipes and trumpets that were commonly found in late 16th- and early 17th-century Tuscany. Her paper, “Hearing Things: Organ Pipes, Trumpets, and Telescopes,” traces the first telescopes from their invention in the Netherlands to Northern Italy. Reeves then focused on four paintings of the period and a number of printed vignettes containing designs of trumpets and organ pipes, and she showed the comparison to the design of Galileo’s telescope.
The morning session was completed with a paper titled “Galileo on the Moon: Seen and Unseen” by David Marshall Miller of Duke University. Miller’s presentation discussed Galileo’s presumption that the lunar surface was much like the surface of the earth, punctuated with mountains and valleys. This assertion placed him at odds with the prevailing Aristotelian view that the moon was a perfect sphere and that any reflections from the moon were variations of light from earth or stars. Galileo’s views gained few supporters at the time, but for Miller his observations as described in “Sidereus Nuncius” “changed the grounds upon which natural philosophical argument and debate were carried out.”
John Hessler, senior cartographic librarian in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, opened the afternoon session with a paper on “Galileo’s Logical Figures: Demonstration and Representation in the Dialectica, Theoremata, and Sidereus Nuncius.” Hessler discussed Galileo’s “concepts of logical methodology” that are found in an unpublished manuscript entitled the “Dialectica.” He then outlined the philosophical puzzles that confounded the old scientific views as they were confronted by the realities brought to light by Galileo’s observations.
In his paper titled “Galileo’s Copernican Conversion,” Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and history of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, also discussed the challenge Galileo posed to the “classical Aristotelian dichotomy between the terrestrial and the celestial.” But for Gingerich, it was not until the publication of “Sidereus Nuncius” that Galileo fully accepted the tenets of Copernicus’ heliocentric work, in which the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe and the planets revolved around the sun in predictable motion.
The final speaker was Peter Machamer, professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh. His “Reception and Influence of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (and the fate of Galileo)” was a fitting ending to this most extraordinary day. His presentation rocked the audience with wit, humor and consummate erudition as he chronicled Galileo’s career and publications, focusing on the influence “Sidereus Nuncius” had on his generation and the generations of astronomers to follow.
Dan De Simone is curator of the Rosenwald Collection in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.