A New Center

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies

By David Wootton

Published by Yale University Press

Copyright: © 2010

David Wootton, age 71, is the Anniversary Professor (a named professor in the British system is equivalent to a full professor in the American system…I believe) of History at the University of York in England. His work ranges from the history of the individual to the wider-ranging histories, and philosophies of ideas that shaped our world. His published interests concentrate on the Renaissance but stretch back to the Greeks and forward to the embryonic American experiment. He is an old-school historian with his scholarship supported by the evidence available coupled with the existing mores of the times. His selection of topics that I have read or perused suggests a thorough dearth of confidence in past historical interpretations and a jaundiced view of present sense and sensibilities. Or more succinctly and in his own words, “History is always about a particular time, a particular place; it is always about groups more than it is about individuals; it is always the history of somewhere.” and if I may so boldly add, it is always the history of (some)time.

Wootton’s written works (books) include:

Wootton’s lectures and pop culture additions include:

Wootton’s biography of Paolo Sarpi, a contemporary and patron of Galileo, likely provided, albeit 27 years later, the impetus and scholarship for Wootton publishing his second biography in 2006 on that aforementioned watcher of the skies. Sarpi, a devout Copernican and a supposedly not so devout Catholic supported Galileo’s heliocentric theories and shielded him, for a time, from his Roman inquisitors. Parenthetically, Wootton in his book on Galileo almost apologizes for writing biographies mainly because his peers look down on the genre, a sentiment I used to harbor but I now appreciate the category because they provide the who to the what, where, and when.

Bad Medicine, Wootton’s second book, postulates that doctors have dispensed more harm than good, beginning with Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C and continuing through to the present day. Covid or the Wuhan Flu pandemic will not provide the medical profession with the needed catharsis to dispel Wootton’s conjecture.

In The Invention of Science Wootton walks us through the birth of the scientific method starting with a supernova shining in the Renaissance night sky of the 1500s and culminating with Newton’s discovery that visible light contains a plethora, or at least 7 wavelengths and hues in the early 1700s.

In Power, Pleasure, and Profit, Wootton expands on the concept of selfishness driving all human progress. A concept, although anathema to all Christian and Western ethics and morality, was espoused by Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in the early 1500s and Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, also known as The Grumbling Hive, first published in 1705.

Wootton’s Besterman Lecture: Adam Smith, Poverty, and Famine, we find out that charity is not a word in Smith’s vocabulary. Academics and maybe the rest us can really get into the weeds.

And finally, before I get into Galileo, The BBC devoted 40 minutes interviewing four guests, Wootton being one of them, on The Fable of the Bees, written initially as a poem, as stated above, by Bernard Mandeville and expanded into a book length dissertation sub-titled Private Vices, Publick Benefits which proposes that personal pleasure and greed drive human progress not altruism or Christian charity.

Galileo, born in the small city of Pisa, Italy in 1564, lived to the astronomical age of 77, some 25 years beyond the average lifespan for that era. He spent his final years blind, serving a life sentence, originally in a papal prison but eventually the prison was exchanged for confinement to his home located in a small village outside of Florence. His crime was for authoring a book defending the heliocentric model of the universe as theorized by Copernicus in 1543 rather than promoting the geocentric model as demanded by the Catholic Church.

Galileo was a tinkerer and thinker more akin to our modern definition of an engineer rather than a scientist, taking innovative ideas and novel inventions to the next level. He didn’t invent the telescope, Hans Lippershay of the Netherlands in 1608 did, but Galileo’s design quickly became the standard and he eventually increased Lippershay’s 3x magnification to 23-30x. His leaden tube with a convex lens in one end and concave lens in the other end discovered the mountains and plains of the moon, the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus, possibly the planet Neptune, individual stars of the Milky Way, and sunspots. Today we can purchase a 30x set of binoculars for less than $100 which we use to peep through our neighbors’ windows and watch songbirds in the meadow across the street. All his discoveries aided in the proof of a heliocentric universe, his universe being mostly what we would refer to today as the solar system. Our discoveries prove that our neighbors are weird.

Galileo was a fascinating man and genus who introduced the world to a new way of advancing our knowledge of the world and the universe. His tinkering and thinking were the rudimentary beginnings of what we now call the scientific method–observe, hypothesize, test, repeat.

His proof of Copernicus’ theory was mostly correct. The Church’s defense of the geocentric model wasn’t. The Church admitted their error in 1992.

Explorations: 5

Pluto, a dwarf planet; Triton, a moon of Neptune; and Phoebe, a moon of Saturn; all exhibit unusual characteristics, such as distinct elemental composition and retrograde orbits; as compared to other, similar objects in planetary portion of our solar system. This suggests their genesis is not identical with the origin of the eight planets orbiting the sun.

Through the use of mass spectroscopy, astronomers and physicists are able to discern the elemental building blocks of the various structures in the vastness of space. The universe and the Milky Way are composed, mainly of hydrogen and helium, adding up to about 98% of its total visible mass and energy; followed in relative abundance, by mass, at least in the Milky Way, by oxygen, carbon, neon, iron, nitrogen, silicon, magnesium, and sulfur. Smaller structures have slightly different compositions from the universe as a whole, as shown in the table below.

E Elements

Relative elemental abundance, from top to bottom, greatest mass to least, respectively, of structures populating the universe.

Hydrogen and helium were produced early in the formation of the universe at the time of the Big Bang.  The other elements, listed above, are generally created from nuclear fusion within stars with a mass at least 1.3 times more than our sun, up to the mass of iron, likely billions of years after the Big Bang. Elements greater than the mass of iron require a supernova for creation. Distribution of elements in the various structures of the universe provide clues to how these structures were formed and where.  Objects with different elemental compositions versus its neighbors suggests they were assembled in a different area of the cosmos.

Objects with retrograde orbits, as compared to their orbit around its primary object can not form in the same area as objects with prograde orbits.  Retrograde orbits imply that the object was captured, gravitationally, by an object of greater mass.

E Pluto

Pluto – NASA photo by Dr. Alex Parker

Pluto, once considered the outermost and ninth planet from the sun was  humiliatingly, and controversially, reassigned to the an inferior status of dwarf planet in 1992, and is now considered part of the inner disc of the Kuiper Belt.  Its orbit is more inclined and elliptical than that of the other planets. Pluto’s surface is composed of approximately 98% frozen nitrogen along with a weak atmosphere composed of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. It has a density greater than all the outer gas giants but less than the inner rocky planets. The planet is spewing nitrogen into space at prodigious rates, but doesn’t seem to run out of that gas, suggesting that its core is solid nitrogen, a chemical makeup that is at odds with the other planets.

E Triton

Triton – NASA/JPL photo

Triton, a retrograde orbiting moon of Neptune, the largest retrograde orbiting object in the solar system, also has a surface composed mainly of nitrogen with the added tourist attraction of year-long eruption of nitrogen geysers from its surface, creating a predominately nitrogen atmosphere. It is believed that Triton’s entire composition is similar to that of Pluto’s but slightly more dense, hinting at a larger rocky core.

Phoebe, a small, retrograde orbiting moon in Saturn’s outer rings, has a density slightly less than Pluto’s. Its surface is composed of frozen carbon dioxide and water but also contains iron, silicates and nitrates, the second most compositionally diverse body in the solar system with the Earth being the most varied.

E Phoebe.png

Phoebe – NASA/Cassini photo

The nitrogen surface and atmosphere of Pluto and Triton suggests that they are not associated with the eight known planets of the solar system. Triton and Phoebe’s retrograde orbit probabilistically confirm that they formed beyond the area of the primaries they orbit. Pluto’s inclined and excessively elliptical orbit, relative to the planets, also implies a different provenance. The simplest, and thus the most likely explanation, Occam’s Razor, of the origin of Pluto, Triton and Phoebe is that they formed within the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune and are remnants retaining the original celestial mix of matter contained within the dense, cold, interstellar cloud that formed our solar system billions of years ago. The three objects were likely gravitationally nudged by the orbit of Neptune into their current positions. Phoebe’s complex composition also implies that not only did it come from the Kuiper Belt but it may also have collided with other planetary objects on its path to capture by Saturn.

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