WHEN THE STARS BEGAN TO SPEAK
1610 A.D.: Galileo Galilei, the foremost mathematician in Italy, lecturer at the venerable University of Padua. citizen of Florence, skeptic and humanist, philosopher and wit, announces a new invention to a startled world:
"About ten months ago a report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed an eyeglass through which visible objects, though very distant from the observer's eye, could be seen as distinctly as if they were nearby. I heard several experiences of this truly remarkable effect recounted, though not all the persons I spoke to believed that the stories were true.
"A few days later the report of this eyeglass was confirmed to me … I threw myself wholeheartedly into seeking out a method of building such an instrument. and soon deduced the principle of the thing from the theory of optics. So I prepared a tube of lead, and at the ends of this tube I fitted two glass lenses …
"Sparing neither labor nor expense, I succeeded at last in constructing for myself an excellent instrument which would cause objects to appear nearly one thousand times larger and more than thirty times closer than when regarded with our natural eyes.
"Forsaking terrestrial observations I turned to the heavens …"
It was the telescope that he had invented, this Galileo. But what mattered was not the telescope itself. In all the ages of ages, that small fraction of the dust of the Universe which had been given the grace to live, to sit up and look around - and by this I mean both mankind and the animals - that small fraction had never known anything of th eplanets and their moons, of comets and asteroids, of stars and nebulae, novae and quasars, dust clouds and galaxies - in short, of all that vast and overwhelming percentage of the dust of the Universe that lies beyond our terrestrial globe - except for what it could see with its naked eyes, which wasn't much, and what it could imagine and dream, which for the most part wasn't true. The Universe slept in near-total ignorance of itself. And with the telescope, all that was changed.
Life saw its birthplace clearly for the first time. Man saw his cradle. The Universe of which we are all such a small part took an enormous leap toward self-awareness.
"O much-knowing perspicil!" wrote Johannes Kepler, that other great astronomer of the time. (Perspicil, one of the earliest names for the telescope, means "a device for looking through, or a way to see keenly and clearly".) "More precious than any scepter! He who holds thee in his right hand is a true king, a world ruler …"
Galileo's announcement of the invention of the telescope, and his description of what he had seen through it, came in an essay titled Sidereus Nuncius - "The Message Contained in the Movements of the Stars." It's hardly surprising that, as they read this title, Galileo's audience - good Christians all thought instantly of Psalm 19:
"The heavens declare the glory of God,
the vault of heaven proclaims his handiwork,
"Day discourses of it to day,
and night to night hands on the knowledge!
"No utterance at all -
"No speech, no sound that anyone can hear;
"Yet their voice goes out throughout all the Earth,
and their message to the ends of the world!"
A very Catholic, very Christian, very traditional way to speak about the stars, this title - and yet what Galileo had to say was utterly and transcendently revolutionary.
Most educated men, then and now. Christians and otherwise, are pretty well condi-
tioned to read old familiar things in an inattentive way - to take things for granted. If, for example, they are Christians, and have read the Bible all their life, they read the Nineteenth Psalm and think "Yes, Scripture is certainly very beautiful," and then because the Nineteenth Psalm is an old familiar thing they give it no further thought; they forget about it and go onto something else. And in this way they miss the whole point of what the psalm is saying.
Only such a man as Galileo or Einstein, who would look very carefully at a thing even if it was old and familiar and he'd seen it a thousand times before - only that sort of man would ever think of actually taking the Nineteenth Psalm's unspoken advice, and going out to have a look at the stars to find out what the stars are saying. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between a man who merely has an education and a man who has learned how to use it; and it exactly parallels the difference between the man who merely has the Knowledge and the man who actually meditates.
Galileo went out into the night with his telescope to find out what the stars were saying. And he found out that many of the things the stars were saying - indeed had always been saying, ever since the morning of the world - were totally different from what people thought the stars were saying. Even many of the most respected sages had been wrong about the stars! That was a revelation. And Galileo was inspired by this to do something reckless: he announced the message of the stars to the world.
What was reckless about Galileo's action lay in the fact that, in those days, people weren't supposed to learn about the glory of God from the heavens, or from any natural thing. That was a crime rather like printing your own money in the basement. People were only allowed to learn about the glory of God from properly licensed ministers, preachers, priests, philosophers and theologians. God was not a public resource like starlight (or fresh air); He was the private property of organized religion - a sort of copyrighted translation of the Bible.
Times have changed! Today we expect revolutionary new discoveries from our scientists - discoveries that will give us a new way to look at the world - and in fact we are disappointed if scientists can't come up with anything new. But in Galileo's day science was expected to echo the line that the theologians were saying, and had been saying, with minor variations, over and over for hundreds and hundreds of years, "revolutionary new discoveries" were unthinkable. Indeed, anyone who did come up with a new discovery in those days ran a serious risk of being burned for heresy at the stake.
Science was nothing; it had never amounted to much, and nobody expected that it would amount to much in the future. Scientists were like ignorant children playing about in the sands of materialism, who had to be shown what was what by the philosophers and the theologians. Scientists were supposed to be seen and not heard.
So "Sidereus Nuncius" was a title loaded with meaning. Galileo was saying, "Yes, I've actually taken the advice of the Scriptures, and I want you to know that I've seen something astonishing and new." For the first time, a scientist had found the spunk to use the physical evidence of Nature and show the philosophers and theologians what was what. The Age of Blind Faith was drawing to a close; the Age of Experimental Knowledge had begun.
Luckily we don't have to guess why Galileo refused to keep quiet - why he published his dangerous truths.We have the explanation in Galileo's own words: his Weltansicht, his vision of the world, as he himself described it. "He who gazes highest," wrote Galileo, "is of highest quality; and the turning to the great book of Nature is the way to make a man look high …"
And in that book, whatever we read is most divinely proportioned, for it is the work of almighty God …Those natural things which most greatly reveal God's hand and skill are the most absolute and noble of all God's many works.
"Now in my opinion, among all the things of Nature which the human intellect is equipped to understand, the framework of the Universe - its structure and its laws - ought to be set in the first and foremost place. And the reason for this is that, since the framework of the Universe excels all other things on account of its universal extent, so, as the rule and standard of the rest, it ought to go before them all in nobility."
Through the study of "the framework of the Universe", he wanted to make men "look high" … One is reminded of those ancient Greeks who chose to represent the Word - as in "In the beginning was the Word" - by a Greek word, logos, which means "Word" and "law" and "knowledge" all at once. No great scientist has ever lived who was not keenly aware of the close relationship that exists between the Word, that vibration of pure certainty, and the harmonies and laws of the Universe, which all matter and energy and therefore all living things, must eternally obey.
It was because Galileo, as a great scientist, was so keenly aware of the relationship between physical laws on the one hand and the divine Word on the other - between the laws, the absolutes, which govern the behavior of matter and energy, and the Word, the certainty, which is the commandment of God to men - between the laws, the harmonies, which may be sought in the mathematics of falling bodies and planets in orbit, and the Word, the unison, which is to be sought in the creative essence of life - it was because he was so keenly aware of that - that Galileo dared to tell the philosophers and theologians just what he thought was true and what was false.
Giorgio de Santillana, the greatest modern expert on Galileo, wrote a very astonishing thing at one point, in commenting on Galileo's Weltansicht:
"Here we see a profoundly new idea of the Universe taking shape, ancient and powerful in its roots, incalculable in its expression, and as different from the Aristotelian caricature taught in the schools as it is from the scant and angular mechanistic dogmatism that Descartes was to introduce a few years later and Newton was reluctantly to adopt as a basis for his theories. Not quite biological, for Galileo is essentially a physicist; not mechanical, surely, for the underlying reality is imagined to be a flow of transforming and vivifying energy which is in essence, as will be revealed eventually, light itself. It is what Galileo does not shy from calling by its proper name, the 'Pythagorean philosophy.' ".
The Crime of Galileo, by Giorgio de Santillana, p.69 The Italics are mine.
Aristotelian caricature … that was the philosophy within which Ptolemy devised his famous Earth-centered model of the Universe: not very true even when Aristotle first formulated it, and sadly debased over the years by Christian apologetics in their efforts to make it agree with their personal interpretations of the Scriptures. The "scant and angular mechanistic dogmatism" is, of course, the thing I have been calling the Clockwork Myth. And what about this "Pythagorean philosophy", this "profoundly new idea" to which Galileo subscribed? The story goes that Pythagoras,the ancient Greek who is remembered today mainly as the inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem, studied in his youth at the feet of the Perfect Master Zoroaster. When he returned to Greece afterwards, Pythagoras began teaching, among other things, that nothing in Nature is absolutely motionless or absolutely changeless, that everything moves and is alive. All through the history of science, we find the greatest and most visionary scientists reciving that teaching and using it to go beyond the sterile theories of their day. You may recall
from last month's article that the first man in history to say that the Earth does not stand still, but moves through space, was one of Pythagoras's disciples, a Greek of the fifth century B.C. named Philolaus.
Pythagoras taught that the world can be analyzed by the use of mathematics, which was a relatively new idea at the time. He used vibrating strings to illustrate the fact that harmony is both mathematical, physical, and spiritual, all at once. He taught that harmony is the mathematical aspect of the channel linking God and man. From this the modern theory of harmonics - which is important both to physicists and to musicians - was eventually developed.
Pythagoras, Pythagoreanism, and mathematics were mostly ignored and all but forgotten during the Middle Ages. They were revived, first by Kepler, and then just a few years later by Galileo; and this in turn inspired Newton, whose mathematical approach created modern physics. Later Einstein stumbled across the same teachings; you may remember that mathematics - particularly geometry - had a profound influence on him at one point in his youth. And it was through Einstein's quantum theories of physics that Pythagoras's most important notion - the idea that everything moves and changes - was finally proved true.
And all this helped to drive Galileo to that crucial moment when he chose to publish what he had seen through his telescope, chose to challenge the Aristotelian "experts", and set in motion the events that ended by revolutionizing science! We can glimpse, in this, something of the awesome power with which the influence of almost-forgotten past Perfect Masters reverberates down through the ages. Far too little is known about Pythagoras and his teachings, and almost nothing about his relationship to Zoroaster; but as we trace, in the lives of Kepler and Galileo and Einstein, the growth of modern scientific insight into the nature of God and the soul, we see the ancient ideas of Pythagoras, and behind them the unspoken influence of Zoroaster, cropping up again and again.
He reads message in the stars, and held it up to the eyes of men …
He laid the foundations for Newton's laws of physics …
He explored the laws and harmonies of Nature …
He shared all that he found. What Galileo was doing was all to force a vastly reluctant humanity to come to grips with a real understanding of the physical Universe in which we live. His telescope, and the new visions it recealed, unleashed a new awareness which exploded upon the addled myths of the Middle Ages like a thermonuclear bomb upon a daydream.
Religions, philosophies, and sciences throughout the world, confronted by Galileo and his followers with the indisputable mute testimony of the stars, either toppled before the challenge and were destroyed - or else surrendered, and by surrendering were transformed.
The discovery of America, the invention of gunpowder: we think of these things as important turning points in history. But these two things merely changed what practical men had to do; Galileo and his telescope changed the practical men themselves.
For it was through the telescope that mankind saw, at long last how large man is, and how large the Universe is - what the Universe really looks like, and how important we really are to it - and how lucky we really are to have our place in the Sun. The old explanations didn't fit the facts any more; the Universe was revealed as an immeasurably vast and awesome mystery.
There is not a single human being above the age of twelve today who does not think differently, act differently, and even see differently, because Galileo and his telescope gave mankind a new mystery to ponder. The course of evolution has been changed; and that is something worth thinking about.
To be continued …