A Geezer’s Notebook, By Jim Foster
We all have heroes. He or she may be someone distinguished in battle, the field of medicine, or for a beer guzzler like you the hero may be from the world of sport. However, the people I look up to are the great men and women from the past who made their mark in the sciences. Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, General Electric for example, all have discovered or built something to make the world a better place. But the man whom I believe made the greatest contribution to modern science and certainly astronomy is Galileo. His work with the refracting telescope and his formula for Windex enabled us to map the heavens and is credited with saving literally thousands of peeping toms from serious injury and death.
The story of the years spent studying optics by this famous Italian mathematician and physicist to develop the telescope is well known among us scholars. Today every schoolchild, from the little tot in kindergarten to the student with the orange hair and the ring in his or her tongue who has applied themselves and made it all the way to Grade 8, are familiar with the contribution the telescope has made to modern science. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have listened to little children under the trees in public school playgrounds discussing refraction, the diffusion of light and so many other big words that baffle us old geezers.
Galileo was born in the town of Pisa in 1564 to Giuseppe and Maria Galileo after a whirlwind courtship. Maria’s father, Tony (the Weasel) Carboni, caught the two of them playing doctor under a table in the revolving restaurant atop the Leaning Tower. Giuseppe was just starting to take out her adenoids when Tony showed up and it was off to the Vatican. An hour later they were standing before the Pope chanting the “I do thee weds.”
Surprisingly, Galileo was quite brilliant in spite of his humble lineage. After a few failed attempts at business he entered academia and joined the faculty at the University of Pisa as a professor of astronomy. For several months, he had a daily column in the Pisa Post casting horoscopes and advising the lovelorn on whether they were going to get lucky or not. When the Dean pointed out that predicting the future was mostly bull-droppings and therefore astrology or political science, Galileo went back to fooling around with his telescope. Some of his predictions were remarkably accurate. Although several people buried under Mount Vesuvius may say otherwise.
As so often happens in the world of science, Galileo’s greatest contribution to the field of astronomy came about by accident. Almost all great inventions have been the result of a miscalculation or the complete misreading of someone else’s notes.
A classic example of this phenomenon is the discovery of gunpowder by the noted Chinese physicist, Ling Ping Pong, who in glancing over the shoulder of a colleague, mistook the sprinkling of monosodium glutamate in a recipe for Chicken Soo Guy for two gallons of nitro glycerin. The resulting explosion levelled half of Peking and chicken parts were found as far away as Tombstone, Arizona. Ling Ping Pong miraculously survived the explosion with few side effects, other than a slight loss of hearing. That had probably less to do with damage to his eardrums and more to do with the fact that for the rest of his life he carried his head around in a shopping bag.
In the case of Galileo and his telescope, he had no idea the instrument could be used to study the stars. He had actually been zeroed in on the bedchamber of Miss Sophia Brunelli, a rather handsome woman on the next block who believed in neither night- shirts nor window shades. When his wife, the lovely Gina Galileo, caught him spying through the glass, Galilei quickly came up with the cock and bull story about looking at the stars. Gina was skeptical of course. When she peered through the lens, she found she was staring into the navel of Miss Brunelli.
Mrs. Galileo was most distraught over the incident and attempted to refocus the telescope up the nether parts of her husband.
While recuperating one evening, Galileo actually did look at the stars, although he had actually been attempting to read the specials on the blackboard in the Leaning Tower’s Revolving Restaurant. He was stunned by this view of the heavens and spent his nights studying the stars, which seemed like a good idea since his wife had left and he had chosen a life of celibacy – at least until the bleeding stopped.
It was during this recovery period, he began to read the works of Nicolaus Copernicus who postulated that contrary to the belief of Mother Church, the earth was not the center of the universe but was actually one of a number of planets that revolved around the sun. Not only did he accept the theories of the Polish astronomer; Galileo was dumb enough to admit it. Rome came down on him like a ton of Rosaries and before he could say mea culpa he was up before the Grand Inquisitor for heresy. He was convicted but got off lightly with excommunication and life imprisonment. Fortunately, because of his advanced age and the fact he was a heavy eater, he was allowed to serve his term under house arrest.
Some 450 years later, the Church reinstated him to the membership roles, but by that time he was so far behind in his tithing that he decided to stay dead.